Apprenticeships for the 21st Century: A New Approach to Training the Next Generation of Top Talent

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Who is to blame for the skills gap that plagues so many employers? It's tough to say. I once pointed the finger at employers who'd rather not offer training and development programs to their employees. A recent SHRM study suggested that budgetary issues were the real culprit. Others have said the workforce is guilty of not keep its skills up to date. Still others decry higher education programs that don't align with business needs.

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In reality, all of these factors and more probably play a role. Finding a solution to current talent shortages will no doubt be difficult, but that doesn't mean solutions aren't out there. In fact, many people and organizations are working around the clock to identify them.

Take, for example, Praxis, an organization that connects high-performing young talent with high-growth startups in a program it calls "the apprenticeship of the 20th century."

"We want to accelerate people's careers," says Zachary Slayback, Praxis's business development director. "We want to take them from where most people are when they're 21 or 22 years old and coming out of college to where most people are when they're 27 or 28 years old. And that might happen for [our participants] when they're 18 and 19."

Experiencing the Skills Gap Firsthand

Praxis CEO and founder Isaac Morehouse first conceived of the idea for the program while working in fundraising for education nonprofits in Washington, D.C. Many of the donors Morehouse interacted with were self-made businesspeople. At the same time, Morehouse was also working with a lot of young, college-educated people who were struggling to find the kinds of jobs they were promised they'd be able to find.

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Curious about the situation, Morehouse asked to businesspeople why they weren't hiring. Many of them offered the surprising response that they were hiring but couldn't find anyone skilled or experienced enough – even for entry-level positions.

"[Morehouse] noticed a huge disparity in the higher education marketplace," Slayback says. "People think you go to college to pick up skills, but the reality is you're just going for a credential. The thought was, what if we could sidestep the credentialing process altogether and feed some of the best young talent out there to the highest-growth companies?"

And thus, Praxis was born.

Apprenticeships: A Better Way to Prepare for the Workforce?

The major difference between an apprenticeship and the traditional, classroom-based style of higher education is that "in an apprenticeship, you actually learn," Slayback says with a laugh. It comes across as good-natured teasing rather than a mean-spirited dig, but he has a point.

"Imagine if we taught people how to ride a bike the way we teach people business," Slayback continues:

"You go for four years. You read about bikes, you solve problems about bikes, you watch videos about bikes, and if you're really lucky you get to talk to a few people who have ridden bikes themselves. But you don't ride a bike, and the vast majority of the time, you're learning from people who have never ridden bikes themselves. Some of these people don't even like riding bikes. And the people who have ridden bikes probably did that 15 or 20 years ago. And then after four years of that, you just throw someone in the middle of a freeway and tell them, 'Ride.'"

"And then we act surprised when they don't know how to ride well?" Slayback concludes. "That's how we teach business. You never actually go and learn by doing. That's what we want to provide people."

That being said, Praxis isn't exactly opposed to higher education. Many of the program's participants are college grads or are planning to attend college after completing the program. Praxis is focused on offering participants a valuable experience, not on necessarily replacing higher education as we know it.

That being said, Slayback does recognize that Praxis's very existence is a bit of an implicit challenge to higher education.

"We don't tell people one way or the other [when it comes to higher education]," Slayback says. "What we've seen, though, is that [Praxis] has almost thrown down the gauntlet at higher ed., as if we're saying 'If you guys can't do this that well, then we're going to do it better.'"

How the Program Works

Praxis is a nine-month program and guarantees participants a job offer for a role paying at least $40,000 a year at its conclusion. It starts with a rigorous application process in which only 10-12 percent of applicants are accepted.

"We have people submit basic things, like a resume, references, and a writing sample," Slayback explains. "What we're really looking at is whether you respond quickly and professionally to emails and what your verbal and written communication skills are like."

In addition to the basic materials, applicants must also submit video answers to a few questions via a private YouTube link. Slayback notes that Praxis gives no direction on how to do that; the organization is looking for applicants who can figure that kind of thing out on their own. Applicants also interview with two staff members.

Those who are accepted then move into the three-month "pre-apprenticeship bootcamp," which includes a module on personal branding, a module on writing (in which participants are required to publish something every day for 30 days), and a third module that is specific to the startup with which the participant will eventually be paired for their six-month paid apprenticeship.

Speaking of the apprenticeships, matches are made by cross-referencing participants skills and values with Praxis's list of business partners. These are startups that have already agreed to host participants for six months. Slayback notes that these are not internships; the participants are paid $15 an hour and perform real, substantive roles during their time with the startups.

The business partners have a say in which participants they'd like to bring on board, and the participants themselves have the power to pass on offers they're not too sure of. Slayback says this has even led to some exciting moments in which participants have successfully played business partners against one another in bidding wars. He mentions one such participant, Diana Zitting, who sparked such a fierce struggle between two startups that one attempted to secure her apprenticeship by offering her a puppy. (Zitting decided to go with the other company, surprisingly.)

As mentioned earlier, solving the skills gap is going to require that we deal with a number of contributing factors. That means Praxis can't singlehandedly fix the problem itself. It's only one organization, after all.

But Praxis does offer a unique and exciting model that could possibly play a crucial role in aligning the American workforce with the needs of American businesses. That's a good reason to pay attention to what the company is doing.