Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The End of Apprenticeships

For most of the history of human civilization, the way that new workers were created came about through the process of an apprenticeship.  Ripping the definition directly from Wikipedia:

Apprenticeship is a system of training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study...

Essentially, a young individual, typically a pre-teen (10-12 years old) would be paired with a professional of some sort.  This "child" would live and work with the adult on a day-to-day basis, learning a craft and honing expertise through increasing levels of participation in the creation of the final product.

For thousands of years this process generated a consistent flow of new blacksmiths, carpenters, cobblers (shoe makers), coopers (barrel makers), sculptors, doctors, farmers, and philosophers.  There are many reasons why this method worked.  In part, it wasn't until the 19th century that advanced schooling - elementary through University - was available to people of all demographic and financial groups.  The apprenticeship was typically the only viable and affordable way for a person to gain financially relevant skills.  But there was another factor at play.

Discounting for the occasional localized setbacks due to war, famine, and disease, the trajectory for growth of the human species has steadily trended upwards.  The ever increasing human population was important because it provided a constant supply of fresh apprentices.  In turn, the result was/has been that our societies have almost always had available professionals and experts to handle all of our needs.  That is, at least until now.

Something interesting happened after World War 2.  There was a population explosion, especially in the United States, that is referred to as the "Baby Boom".  So many people were born in that period between 1946-1964 that when they entered into the workforce they became the dominant generation. Yet, during the same time something almost paradoxical happened.  The Baby Boomers, especially the earlier ones, were so absorbed in making careers and enjoying a standard of living unknown to any other generation in history that they weren't very fertile.  The "Boomers" and, to a small extent their predecessors called "The Silent Generation", were responsible for creating "Generation X".  These people were all born in the timeframe between 1965-1976.  Compared to other generations, X'ers are somewhat few and far between...

Let's take a quick look at the relative size of the generations dating back from the 1920s until today:


Some of the very late stage Boomers combined with the Gen X'ers to establish the next generation group called "Millennials", which some also see as Generation Y.  The point of the graph shows that Generation X, which should have been the group of people who would take over the professional positions vacated by the Boomers, never had enough individuals born into it to have the required volume to be viable as a complete generation.

What this means is that because of the economic conditions dating back to 2008, those Boomers who would have retired to make way for the X'ers to take over never left the workplace.  They probably won't do so until the 2020s when age forces them out or sooner if the economy ever picks up (not likely).  So, the millennials coming into the workforce should have apprenticed with the Gen X'ers, but couldn't because (a) there were too few of them and (b) the Boomers were still in charge.

Whether you see it first hand or read about it in some publication like this blog, the Boomer and Millennial generations do not mix.  There are many resources available to prove this statement whether you want a simple comparison or a detailed matrix of specific differences. The point is that as of today, about 70% of the U.S. workforce consists of either a Baby Boomer or a Millennial and they don't have a relationship that leads to much knowledge transfer.


If you are a Millennial then here is your reality:  You will have to hit the ground running.  It is very unlikely that you will have a Boomer or an X'er there to help you learn your given trade.

As a Generation X CIO, I am one of the lucky business executives (unlike my peers).  Because technology is so prevalent, the learning curve for teaching new workers in their 20s how to become IT professionals is not very steep. Unlike any previous generation, the Millennials grew up always having technology integrated into every facet of their lives.  Unlike me trying to explain to my parents how to set the clock on their VCR (what is that??), Millennials enter the workforce already knowing about coding, mobility, virtual resources, and the science of application development.

It's a new world that we are now living within.  How will human civilization advance now that the four-millennia-old tradition of apprenticeships is over...?

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