The Value of Apprenticeships

“Always two there are: a master, and an apprentice."

Yoda, *Star Wars*

I have an apprentice.

Meet Carlos Miceli. Carlos contacted me via e-mail a few months before the launch of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business. Carlos said that he’d been following the Personal MBA for a long time, and he wanted to work with me. If there was anything that he could help with, he’d be happy to chip in, no strings attached.

Carlos’ reputation preceded him. I’d been following Carlos’s blog, OwlSparks, for about a year. I knew his work, and I was impressed.

I’m a solo practitioner - my business is intentionally structured to not have employees. I prefer to spend most of my time creating new things and working with clients vs. managing a team. Communication Overhead is very disruptive in the type of work I do.

That said, I accepted Carlos’ offer, and officially took him on as my apprentice. Carlos is responsible for much of the material on He is actively helping me develop new projects, and I am training him in my coaching and consulting methods. When his training is complete, Carlos will be fully capable and competent in teaching business the Personal MBA way.

I believe apprenticeships are woefully underrated. A formal apprenticeship has many benefits for both the apprentice and the master. By working together, a master and apprentice team can accomplish a lot – and learn a ton in the process.

I use the term “master" in this context very loosely. If you have a few years of hands-on experience in a field, you’ve mastered the necessary skills far more completely than someone who is just starting. Working with an apprentice is mutually beneficial - the apprentice learns and practices your methods, and you improve your craft at the same time.

Here’s a brief examination of the benefits and drawbacks of apprenticeships:

Benefits of apprenticeship for the apprentice:

  • Exposure. Working with an experienced practitioner in a functioning business can give you exposure to new opportunities, skills, and people very quickly.
  • Experience. The best apprenticeships require a significant amount of hands-on work, which means you’ll get a ton of direct experience in the field in a short amount of time. If you want to master a new craft, there’s no substitute for actually getting your hands dirty.
  • Practice. Doing real work (instead of theoretical case studies or homework) and practicing skills repeatedly is the only way to develop expertise. Doing so under a master practitioner is the best way to practice efficiently, since the master will be able to share the benefits of their experience, as well as correct mistakes.

Benefits of apprenticeship for the master:

  • Delegation. Having an extra brain and set of hands is enormously beneficial. By training your apprentice, you improve your capability to get things done. The better you train your apprentice, the more capable they are of helping you.
  • Externalization. As a practitioner, much of your knowledge is implicit - you know how to do things, but you don’t consciously know how you know it, or why it’s important. In the process of teaching your apprentice, you’re also putting your own process into an form, which can be easily examined and improved.
  • Refactoring. By teaching your process and skills to an apprentice, hidden problems and inefficiencies will become very clear. That’s a wonderful thing - your apprentice can help you improve the process and systems you’re using, so you’ll get better results with less effort.

Drawbacks of apprenticeship for the apprentice:

  • Time-intensive. The best apprenticeships will be very demanding. Completing an apprenticeship may require putting other priorities or projects on hold during the term of the apprenticeship.
  • Low glamour. In the olden days, apprentice blacksmiths began their duties by sweeping the floor - certainly not the most interesting or fulfilling work. However, maintenance tasks are valuable and necessary - they immediately increase your master’s capacity, and they’re a good place to start learning what the day-to-day practice of a craft actually takes. (The best practitioners won’t ask their apprentice to do anything they aren’t willing to do themselves.)
  • Not directly lucrative. Most apprenticeships don’t pay much in the way of wages. I’m in favor of paying apprentices enough to be able to support themselves and focus on your business full-time, but they’re not a path to wealth for the apprentice. A major part of an apprentice’s compensation is in learning and experience. The apprenticeship may lead to wealth, but it will do so indirectly, not directly.

Drawbacks of apprenticeship for the master:

  • Communication Overhead. Simply by having another individual to communicate with, the master will be spending less time working and more time communicating with their apprentice. While this tradeoff is unavoidable, the drawback can be mitigated by setting an expectation with the apprentice that communication will happen in batches, to avoid the Cognitive Switching Penalty.
  • Opportunity Cost. Time spent training an apprentice is time not spent directly building the business. Properly managed, your apprentice will be a benefit to your business instead of a cost, but it takes a while to get there. The first few months of working with an apprentice should be viewed as an investment in future returns.
  • Up-front Investment. One of the best ways to handicap your apprentice’s performance is to avoid giving them the tools they need to perform. Ideally, you’ll need to provide the same tools you use on a daily basis. View this as an investment, not a cost.
  • Risk. If your apprentice screws something up, your business and reputation is on the line. Much of this risk can be avoided by choosing your apprentice carefully, and by carrying Errors & Omissions / Professional Liability insurance, just in case.

Experimenting with Apprenticeship

If you’re just getting started, finding an experienced practitioner and arranging an apprenticeship can be a great career move. You’ll learn a lot about what a new business looks like from the inside, watch a functioning business at work, and immediately start doing work that makes a difference.

Charlie Hoehn wrote about this a few years ago in an e-book titled Recession-Proof Graduate. By contacting a practitioner you want to work with and offering to do something for free, you can get your foot in the door doing work others only dream about - a classic Risk Reversal strategy. (Charlie is now Tim Ferriss’ right-hand man - a gig he landed using this strategy.)

If you’re an experienced professional, taking on an apprentice is a great way to hone your own skills and tune up your entire business system. By teaching what you do to someone else, you’ll inevitably find ways to improve your own craft. Done well, these benefits will improve the results you’ll deliver, both immediately and in the future.

Read more essays by Josh Kaufman →

Published: April 14, 2011Last updated: April 14, 2011

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