search  current discussion  categories  teaching 

apprenticeship v. work experience v. hired help

updated sun 3 jun 01


Janet Kaiser on fri 1 jun 01

In the good old, bad old days, an apprentice would be
articled to a master for seven years. In return for
pocket money (with or without board and keep), they
would learn the job from the ground up... literally. At
14 (the school leaving age) they spent a week - month -
year (however long it took) learning how to sweep the
floor. They then were taught (by a real person) and
learned every single task step-by-step - no matter how
small or apparently inconsequential - which contributed
to the smooth working of the business...

By year three they could do all the monotonous and
repetitive tasks which are done in any workplace. They
knew why, what for, how and how not to do anything in
the safest and most economical manner. They also knew
all about the social hierarchy and the responsibilities
of each individual in the scheme of things. By the end
of seven years, they were entrusted to the most
complicated jobs and knew the business inside out.
Their strengths and skills had been recognised and they
were employed in the area at which they were most adept
and showed the most interest in.

At the age of 21, they then became journeymen and
professionals, honing their skills and craft over
several more years, until eventually they were
proficient enough to become Masters themselves.

It is with some amusement that I am approached by
various training bodies and institutions, who ask us to
accommodate young persons who need to acquire a
meaningful insight into our work and therefore learn
all about their chosen future careers. Administration,
general office work, public relations, promotion,
accountancy, legal, safety, how the coffee machine
works... There is a very long list indeed when you even
start to think about any business, no matter how small.

These youngsters are supposed to learn what goes on, to
recognise each part of the whole and be able to
evaluate it all in just ONE WEEK. This is their "work
experience". There is a long list of what is
"appropriate" and "inappropriate" for them to do during
this time. Dirty, strenuous or execrative physical
labour (sweeping the floor?) is not allowed, but we are
expected to entrust a 16-17 year with our IT system, as
if there is no such thing as sensitive data. I could go

This deep and meaningful "experience" is dutifully
written up (preferably via floppy disk and complicated
spread sheets) and presented to the tutor at the end of
the week. They are marked on what they have "learned"
and then move on to more academic subjects within their
syllabus. Their brief excursion into the real world is
quickly forgotten. You next hear that they are taking a
degree in environmental science and will be going to
work in Ghana for a year...

Then there is the undergraduate who is required to do
some hands-on work for one day per week during the long
vacation. By the time we have explained what has to be
done, why and how, I could have done it myself. Every
little task needs a full A4 of verbal/written
instruction and description in the right jargon to
score with the visiting tutor, who quite frankly knows
bugger all about working in the real world and cares
even less. He/she has followed the
school-university-school path and has never set foot in
a real business environment or got their hands dirty.

No learned task may be repeated and once again no
manual labour should be required of them. (One even
refused to make a coffee for a client!) These students
are not scored any higher for pleasant manner, clean
and tidy appearance, punctuality, loyalty, willingness
to help, flexibility, ability to deal with a crisis,
doing tasks which are not in the job description, etc.
etc. Taken to its conclusion: any initiative is frowned
upon if not formally reprimanded!

Then there is the highly qualified employee. The job
description is long, but anything not categorically
included in that is refused. The "that's not my job"
attitude is rife. Sloppiness, inattentiveness,
inability to complete work on time, doing the minimum
but nothing more, all sorts of irksome ways... There is
no end to them! And of course employers have to
accommodate hang-overs, visits to the doctor in working
hours, lunch breaks which extend to two in the
afternoon, arriving late every morning, when the first
half hour is spent doing make-up, having breakfast and
chatting to the postman. They have to leave early
because they need to do some shopping on the way home,
take the kids swimming or have a headache...

However, at least employers have had good training with
those poor young adults and students who have been on
"work experience". We know not to expect an employee to
be a fairy godmother in disguise and we should be
eternally grateful if they actually work for five full
days per week fairly regularly.

When all the responsibilities and costs of employing
someone full-time are taken into consideration, the
time it takes to train each one into their job and the
lack of interest and pride they usually show in their
work and our business, it is no wonder many small
businesses depend on unqualified hired help.

Hired help is paid by the hour and does not incur added
taxes or other social costs. If they do not show up,
they do not get paid. They are usually very versatile,
willing and helpful at all times. The work ethic is
alive and well: they are prepared to work longer hours
at busy times and fewer when business is slack. They
gradually increase their self-worth and take on roles
they never thought possible given their "failure" at
school. They do not mind dropping the mail off at the
post office on the way home, nor do we mind them having
the children round after school. They are often
youngish people who have been badly let down by the
system and once you find one of these jewels, you treat
them like gold dust.

They were not high flyers academically, so the whole
college and further education system was beyond them.
They were often the aggressive, bored, rowdy kids in
the final two years at school (15-16) and were parents
by age 18. With no certificates of education and no
modern equivalent to the old apprenticeships, they are
unskilled and have no chance of full-time employment or
further training. Unscrupulous employers take advantage
of them and their situation.

It appears to me, we are loosing a whole generation of
willing, able and good "workers". We condemn the less
academically able to feeling they do not fulfil a
worthwhile and meaningful role in society. We also
expect far too much of the educational system as it now
stands. It just ain't going to work as long as the
emphasis is on acquiring bits of paper, whilst ignoring
the needs of society. The workers of this world and
their employers, deserve better.

Janet Kaiser
The Chapel of Art . Capel Celfyddyd
Criccieth LL52 0EA, GB-Wales Tel: (01766) 523570