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New Forms of Apprenticeships, Internships and Mentoring Build Careers


In December, 2012, more than 14 million people tuned into NBC to watch a show about mentors. Four professional singers competed to attract a team of hopeful stars and train them up to see who would become the best of the bunch. The Voice, based on a Dutch television show, has been a huge success, the format spreading around the world and creating dream careers for winners Javier Colon, Jermaine Paul and Cassadee Pope. But the show hasn’t just been good for the student singers and entertaining for viewers. It’s also delivered a powerful demonstration of the benefits of mentoring — of learning how to perform tasks under the guidance of someone who already who knows how to complete them well.

It’s a method that’s not new, of course, nor is it limited to rising performers. Tennis player Andy Murray’s first Grand Slam title at last year’s US Open has often been put down to his decision to hire former world number one Ivan Lendl as his new coach. And even when he was the best golfer in the world, Tiger Woods worked alongside a trainer and now takes instruction twice a week in the off-season from Sean Foley, a golf coach who places a strong emphasis on biomechanics and physics. If the best in the world can see the benefit of learning from people who haven’t even reached their heights of success, then surely entrepreneurs, freelancers and anyone hoping to achieve a goal should be looking for a mentor.

Internships and Apprenticeships

Mentoring isn’t the only way of learning from someone who has achieved the goals you’re aiming for — or who understands how to reach them. Once you move away from the knowledge acquisition supplied by universities and colleges, and start looking for the hands-on experience that really makes a difference, the choices also run to internships and apprenticeships.

The two appear similar but have important differences.

According to the Department of Labor, apprenticeships are:

“a combination of on-the-job training and related classroom instruction in which workers learn the practical and theoretical aspects of a highly skilled occupation. Apprenticeship programs are sponsored by joint employer and labor groups, individual employers, and/or employer associations.”

To create an apprenticeship program, an employer has to work with the Office of Apprenticeship or the State Apprenticeship Agency to develop training standards. These include an on-the-job training outline, a related classroom instruction curriculum and operating procedures. The program will only be registered if it meets Federal requirements.

Internships can be muchless clearly planned. Participants don’t take classes or follow a curriculum and their tasks may be relatively mundane: more fetching and photocopying than fitting engines and fixing machinery. To get the most out of an internship, Nike, which runs twelve-week internships for trainee designers at its offices near Beaverton, Oregon and Hilversum, The Netherlands, recommends that participants “be a snoop; talk to people about their processes on things you like.”

Despite that vague advice, Nike’s internships are paid and carefully laid out, with plenty of lectures and personal projects that interns are expected to complete. That isn’t true of all positions, however. In early 2012, Xuedan “Diana” Wang filed a lawsuit against the Hearst Corporation, arguing that the internship she completed for Harper’s Bazaar actually consisted of five months of unpaid labor. The suit, which was joined by two other interns, alleged that the magazine required Wang, as “head intern,” to work 40 to 55-hour weeks overseeing a team of eight unpaid workers whose job was primarily to transport clothes to and from PR firms. Wang claimed that the work failed to meet the Department of Labor’s guidelines for internships.

Those guidelines lay out six criteria that an internship has to meet in order to be exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act requiring companies to pay employees at least a minimum wage. They include work that is “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment,” not displacing regular employees and a requirement that the employer providing the training “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”

Paying a salary might just be easier than trying to meet those guidelines, and that’s a choice made by a number of firms, especially large companies and those trying to recruit workers for which there’s a high demand. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, about 87 percent of engineering and computing science majors will take paid internships, with the average wage ranging from $16 to $18 per hour.

And those internships tend to be an effective first step into the business. While no internship ever guarantees a job, completing an internship does increase the chances of landing one. In 2008, companies offered jobs to nearly 70 percent of their interns, a rise from 57 percent in 2001. In 2009, only 14 percent of college seniors left school with a job waiting for them but that portion rose to nearly a quarter for those who had completed internships.

Modern Mentoring Methods

While apprenticeships and internships tend to take place in businesses, mentors tend to work one-on-one with their charges. The relationship is personal, between master and student, rather than between new employee and established firm. That’s the model most often used by sports stars but it’s not the only way of learning how to reach a goal.

Escapologist Harry Houdini might have started the trend by picking up his skills through a mentor he never met. It was after reading the autobiography of French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin that the teenage Ehrich Weiss changed his name to match that of the man he regarded as his mentor and went on to become the world’s most famous escape artist. He later wrote a book about the life of Robert Houdin.

Stamp dealer and collector Ian Kimmerly took a broader approach. He first filled in his knowledge by joining philatelic societies in the United States and later in Ottawa. That gave him access to the combined expertise of the clubs’ members and led to a job writing a weekly stamp column in the Ottawa Citizen. Kimmerly is now the only stamp dealer between Montreal and Toronto, and is also a mentor to other collectors and rising experts.

Today, that kind of distance mentoring through books and clubs can be performed online. In July last year, craft site Etsy began building a Seller Education Program. The site invited fifteen “community and entrepreneurial superstars” from across the US and Canada to its offices in New York where a full day of classes turned those successful sellers into mentors ready to train other sellers. Craftmakers who want to build their own successful businesses on Etsy can subscribe to the School of Etsy Sellers run through SkillShare. The classes include a guided tour of Etsy given by Mandala artist Christine Claringbold, and shop critiques provided by Caroline and Jose Vasquez of Paloma’s Nest, a top Etsy seller whose work has been featured in Martha Stewart Weddings. Gabriella Cetrulo of Tomorrow is Forever credits her “internship” with allowing her to create her own business. Her Etsy store has now made 90 sales and picked up more than 2,000 admirers. The site’s users can also join “Teams” and forums where they can ask questions and exchange ideas with other sellers, a community feature which is often the first step for people hoping to increase their sales.

Udemy tries to do something similar to Etsy’s Seller Education Program but on a broader scale, and in the process ends up moving closer to online learning. The site offers online courses created by leaders as well-known as Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who teaches a class on New Product Development. Students don’t receive the one-on-one personal coaching that they can get on Etsy’s forums or from its certified educators but they can still pick up knowledge from some of their industry’s most successful leaders.

Alternatively, people looking for a more a personal — and more peer-based — approach to modern mentoring can look to co-working spaces. While these are really intended to provide shared offices rather than any form of training, in practice the camaraderie that can develop between people sharing a space can lead to some useful knowledge-sharing. General Assembly, for example, considers itself “a global network of campuses for individuals seeking opportunity and education in technology, business, and design” and combines its shared office space with classes in entrepreneurship, design and technology. Unlike traditional mentoring, users have to pay to access the site, with monthly fees typically around $300 to $500 but that includes access to a library and classrooms as well as a place to work and network.

Summer@Highland takes the idea even further by  picking student entrepreneurs and giving them free office space in Cambridge or Menlo Park, a $15,000 grant and access to a network of speakers and founders to question and learn from.

The Old Ways Still Work

While Etsy’s online internships might represent a new way in which those who have achieved success can share their skills and experience, the old ways are still working too. Keen photographers wondering what it takes to run their own studio and hoping to pick up the abilities to set out on their own have long worked as “photography assistants,” a kind of apprenticeship. In addition to carrying bags of equipment, getting the lenses ready and hanging up the backdrops, they might also be allowed to work as a second shooter at weddings, capturing moments missed by a main photographer busy focusing on the bride and groom. Most assistants are paid, with rates ranging from $250 to $350 for a ten-hour day in New York or Los Angeles but falling to $150 to $250 for less metropolitan markets. The ability to work as a digital technician (editing images in Photoshop, for example) can push those daily rates up as high as $500.

Finding those jobs is relatively straightforward too. In the UK, PhotoAssist acts as a job site for hopeful photography assistants while in the US, enthusiasts and students can turn to Flickr’s photography assistant groups or try calling local studios and asking to show them a portfolio.

The model of walking into a small business with a ready pair of hands and a willingness to learn in return for a small income can be applied to just about any business. Before Julie Cleaves started her dog training business, the Auntie Dog Training Studio, she took an apprenticeship at Doberman Rescue Unlimited, a rescue and adoption center. By the time she set up her own dog-related business, she had already picked up years of experience. And baker Kelly Delaney, who was mentored by Mindy Grossman, CEO of Home Shopping Network, after getting her business mentioned on television show Bloomberg: The Mentor, found the experience so helpful that she decided to give back by creating her own mentoring program at her shop Cakes4Occasions.

Choosing Your Mentor

Finding internships and apprenticeships is relatively straightforward. Large businesses such as Nike advertise them on their websites while college job fairs are big recruitment areas for businesses looking for new graduates to bring through their systems. Picking a mentor, such as a photographer or dog trainer, is a little harder and is often limited to the range of professionals who happen to be in your area.

In general though, it’s always essential to know who you’re working for, to choose your mentor based on what he or she can teach you and to pick your apprenticeship or internship based on what you’ll be doing. Future employers will be more impressed with a full portfolio and broad experience from a small firm than the expert photocopying and bag-carrying skills picked up working for a larger one.

However you look for the extra skills and knowledge you’ll need to create your own success, whether you do it the old-fashioned way through hands-on experience and a small wage or a newer approach that takes in virtual learning or co-sharing, you shouldn’t expect instant stardom. You can however expect to have the essential elements of your own business — and the opportunity to mentor others in return.

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