Hire apprentices, not interns



Many business leaders complain that universities turn out graduates that are not “job ready”. We often hear about a “war for talent”, where businesses have to offer unsustainable salaries and benefits to get the skills they need. Meanwhile tech and creative-focused business increasingly use interns, a system that is coming under intense criticism.

The solution to all these problems is simple.

Don’t hunt for talent, grow it.

Mike Monteiro, a leading American digital designer and founder of Mule Design, gives a wonderful talk entitled “This is the golden age of design! … and we’re screwed”. We were lucky to see Mike live at the 2016 Above All Human conference in Melbourne (a great event, if you can make the next one, don’t miss it), and I was excited by the key ideas he explores in his talk. The presentation is ostensibly about how design professionals, large companies and startups should relate to graduate designers, but the principles he describes hold good in any industry.

The core of Mike’s approach is the renewal of the old-fashioned idea of an apprenticeship, applied to modern professions.

You can check out a version of Mike’s talk here (warning, some of the language is not office or playground appropriate, wear your headphones).

The video is about 45 minutes long, but well worth the time. In essence, Mike argues that not only are graduates not “job ready”, but that they can’t be. Until comparatively recently nobody expected young people to leave university or college fully cooked. Many professions existed long before the related degrees were created, and relied entirely on on-the-job training (including engineers and lawyers). Today, some professions still recognise the centrality of working under professional supervision as a part of the education of practitioners (a model most widespread in medicine). So why do so many businesses now bemoan the lack of “job readiness” among graduates? Simply because they don’t want to invest in training, or have abrogated their responsibilities. It is lazy non-management, and leads to burnout, churn and bad product.

If your young workers aren’t up to grade, the problem isn’t them, it’s you.

As Mike points out, this means only larger or well-established employers can afford to hire young workers. Startups and small businesses should probably avoid them. If you can only hire one or two professionals in a given field, don’t go after the hungry young graduate. Don’t hire people who maybe look like you, or who you think will invigorate your business with youthful energy and new ideas (because without guidance or leadership they’ll flounder). Hire experience.

Larger companies will benefit from the injection of energy and fresh thinking, and will reap other rewards such as improved employee loyalty, but only if they follow a few basic rules of thumb.

  • Don’t throw young workers into the deep end. Instead ensure they have a structured, staged and supported introduction to the reality of their work.
  • Ensure young workers have mentors.
  • Ensure that everyone in your business is learning all the time.
  • Remember that the contribution any employee makes is not limited to a technical silo. They need to know about your whole business, and to develop non-technical skills (such as planning, communication skills, budgeting, and working with multi-disciplinary teams). You’ll be surprised by the ways people can contribute when you break them out of the job description prison.

Young workers are worth hiring, and paying properly, but only if you also invest in their continuing professional development.


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