What’s the difference between an intern and an apprentice?


All careers start on a steep learning curve: doing new work in unfamiliar surroundings, often with entirely different vocabulary and social norms than we’ve experienced before. “Fake it ’til you make it” is a common survival mode for new hires — and for many professionals, this persists for years as impostor syndrome. Ideally, learning and challenges remain as positive aspects throughout our careers, while confidence and competence replace the new hire’s feelings of doubt and confusion.

“Actually, it IS rocket science…” — NASA/JPL intern

Many professionals start gaining experience as either an intern or an apprentice. What is the difference between an internship and an apprenticeship? Both are temporary positions or limited duration contracts. Both are entry-level roles with no prior experience required, beyond education in a relevant subject.

The key differences between interns and apprentices are the levels of support and expectations applied by the employer’s organization.

Interns and apprentices: different expectations of ability, different levels of support.

As the two-by-two matrix above illustrates, apprentices have both high expectations and high support. Apprenticeship is typically the first phase in on-the-job development of a skilled trade; popularized by the German manufacturing industry and often debated about its adaptation to the US labor market. The apprentice model, however, has expanded beyond skilled trades to tech job categories like software development. Regardless of the industry, employers invest in apprentices because the apprentices represent a valuable future labor pool. Competing firms are willing to invest in apprentices’ development to strengthen the industry without the fear of poaching: employers expect that individual workers are just as likely to join a company from its competitors as to leave. In a 2016 US Department of Commerce study, individual employers reported attrition rates in the single digits, while a broader study by NCEV in Australia showed contract completion rates in the 45%-55% range (slightly higher for non-trades). Performance expectations for apprentices are similarly high, including competency checks, either formal or informal, for apprentices to demonstrate the new skills they develop as they acquire increased responsibility and tackle assignments of greater complexity.

The typical corporate intern sits in the opposite quadrant: low expectations for performance with low levels of support. Employers generally give summer interns low volumes of low-risk, low-priority work, capping off the internship with predictably low-quality presentations. Individual companies, especially those who take pride in seeing their names at the top of ranking tables, might disagree with my categorization. A notable exception is Year Up: despite the title “intern,” the program follows a model much closer to apprenticeship. As a manager, I make the personal investment to coach and mentor interns that I host, and surely other individual managers are willing to do the same. Broadly, however, corporate internships are seen both by employers and interns as networking opportunities, resume padding, and the chance to earn some summer money (and generally to spend it just as quickly while drinking with other interns). 

Two other alternative scenarios complete the matrix. The low-expectations, high-support quadrant is “nepotism:” imagine the young, barely competent relative of an executive or high-ranking bureaucrat coddled and gently steered away from career ending blunders by infinitely patient staff. The high-expectations and low-support quadrant I’m calling “rookie draft pick:” imagine the high-pressure, fend-for-yourself environment described in countless athlete memoirs. Financial services interns might argue this quadrant characterizes their world more accurately.

So whether you are a young professional seeking career-developing experience, or a leader seeking to create a pipeline of high-quality talent, understand what levels of support and expectations are in place. The balance between these two factors will determine the outcomes for your interns, apprentices, princelings, or rookie draft picks.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Alexis Drake

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