Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Saving Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are all the rage, and rightfully so: There is possibly no better way to learn some of the trades without actually doing it alongside a skilled master. While this is universally understood and accepted, what's not so clear is that government funding this and colleges and training companies running it really works. Despite the talk around apprenticeships, many really end up with dead-end positions, with little prospect or pay, loads of work and little learning. The training often tends to be motivational fluff, just the kind one hoped to escape when choosing to go down the apprentice route, and instead of the 'master', one usually gets a failed practitioner as the Guru.

Call it modern apprenticeships, this has to nothing to do with what it was in its traditional form. The communities are all gone: They have been stripped away by our organized dislike of unionized labour. The pride of work has also been taken away: It is about the money one earns and often, this is about surviving than excelling. The modern work is too complex to understand, let alone love or to connect with. And, the commitment to the profession is often filmsy for the same reasons: In fact, there is a crisis of professional identity rather than the willing assumption of one.

Politicians keep preaching apprenticeships though. The liberals love them, believing this creates opportunity society. The right-wingers love them, as a low cost way of producing factory fodder. Throughout the Anglo-American world, everyone wants to import German apprenticeship system without importing its industrial relations. In the resentment against the universities, a costly institution which no one understands or loves, the lure of an imagined system where everyone learns through practice seems irresistible: Though, in practice, this is all about an impoverished education, which mostly leaves the learner with nothing but a set of factory regulations, health and safety checklists and a total dependency on a life of wage labour.

Learning through experience is to be welcomed, indeed, but there must be learning. Knowing to do a job is not enough by itself; learning must be involved the 'why' question and ability to answer that from multiple perspectives. I shall argue that the traditional apprenticeships, with master craftsmen at the centre and the communities all around them, imbibed a sense of ownership and pride of the profession, which sufficiently, if in an outdated way, answered the why question. Admittedly, that system was unsustainable: This denied innovation and therefore, was powerless on the face of industrial age. However, the modern, bureaucratic monstrosity we replaced it with has all the stagnation of the old system, and none of its belongingness; it is all about accepting one's station in life and going on to do something inferior than, say, the bankers.

So, it is time to rethink the apprenticeships. A good start will be to retire the qualification bodies, who impose an alien rulebook on the professions, from the field: It is not for big corporations to set learning outcomes and make this whole exercise a mockery of form-filling. And, one would wonder whether there is any easier alternative to restore respect for a practice other than respecting its practitioner, and start thinking that it is the plumber, carpenters, customer service professionals, auto and construction workers and electricians who create more value than the assorted accountants, managers and lawyers that run companies and take the rewards. The Trade Unions, which we love to hate, are the communities which hosted the professions: Is there a way but to restore these communities with all their pride and all their belongingness?

If we see apprenticeships that would rescue mass education and fight apathy and young people dropping out of societies, it is incumbent upon us to save it from the decline.

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