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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What does your one day résumé show?

“We each live our lives one day at at time” is a deceptively simple expression. The same goes for our careers. Comparing the resumes for professionals with 5, 15, or 25+ years of tenure will obviously show different experiences and capabilities. But regardless of your previous accomplishments, what would your resume look like from yesterday as a snapshot of your achievements in 24 hours?

Research from Right Management showed that 48% of professionals in the 18-24 age range update their resumes when a new goal is achieved, compared to 24% of the 35-54 age range. While this could be linked to the scarcity of significant development opportunities later in a career, or perhaps that 35-54 year olds have found more interesting things to do on a Tuesday night. Regardless, the statistic suggests that younger professionals are more aware of their professional achievements on a shorter timescale.

So as you read this and enter a new day in your career, think about what you are going to achieve in the following categories. I’m not advocating haphazard multitasking in order to check all these boxes in a single day, but instead encouraging  you to learn and develop, one day at at time.

Experience

  • Quantify the results of a project you’re leading
  • Ask for an endorsement from a customer or colleague
  • Volunteer to join an initiative outside of your “home” function

Education

  • Register for a graduate course (does your employer offer tuition reimbursement? As reported in Fortune, 83% say they do)
  • Begin a certification program from your employer, vendor (such as Pega Academy), or 3rd party (PMI reports that project managers with the PMP designation earn 20% more)
  • Seek out an adjunct professor role at a nearby university. Teaching is the best way to learn a subject more deeply.

Philanthropy

  • Volunteer your time as a tutor, mentor, or coach, or otherwise participate in activities to help others.

Speaking and Publications

  • Focus your own understanding and help to expand the knowledge of your community by publishing research and making presentations at events

It’s easy to get stuck on “auto-pilot” (no Tesla jokes yet…it’s too soon) and cruise through each day at work without the awareness of how you are honing your capabilities and expanding your knowledge to benefit others. Set off to work tomorrow with the intention of making your one day resume as strong as it can be.

Three dimensions of career specialization

For all of us professionals who made the mistake of getting a college degree instead of learning a skilled trade, over the course of a long career we face many decisions about which roles with which organizations will be most rewarding–however you choose to measure rewards.

Once you’ve chosen which of the four job types is for you, at some point in your career you will begin to specialize. If you’ve reached the point in your career where you’re wondering what’s next and preparing to transition to a new role, think about the dimensions below. Sometimes deciding what you will not do next can simplify the search for what you will do.

specialize in a function, industry, or growth stage and gain flexibility in the other two

As you advance professionally, your choices for successive roles will enable you to specialize by:

  • Function: by choosing a functional area (e.g., operations, finance, sales, etc.) of expertise, you can bring best practices across industries.
  • Industry: deep knowledge of a single industry (e.g., B2B software, upstream petroleum, auto insurance) is an asset that allows you to move between companies or functional roles.
  • Growth stage: the problems that confound businesses trying to break above $10m in revenue are very different from those at the $1b revenue threshold. There are many stages of growth (e.g., expanding to a second country or continent, going public or private, etc.).

Building a track record of success in one of these dimensions will lead to flexibility in the other two dimensions as organizations that require your expertise will seek you out as a valuable asset.

I’d be thrilled if my daughters grew up to be welders, plumbers, or electricians. If they don’t I hope they at least read my blog as they navigate their professional careers.

Thanks to Bernardo Menezes for sparking this idea.