Teenagers and Careers

I’m going to go a bit off the beaten path here…

Why Nerds Are Unpopular by Paul Graham is one of the most thought-provoking essays I’ve ever read. I’ve re-read the thing several times over the years, each time realizing how much it actually hit upon some of the fundamental truths of my teenage years. In short, I felt completely lost in most teenage social situations and I felt most useful and happy when I was involved in actually learning elements of a trade from an adult who would teach me (for example, my father integrating me into his fishing business). An excerpt:

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren’t left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they’ll do as adults.

And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years’ training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop.

Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.

What happened? We’re up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don’t start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30.

The point here makes sense. Most teenagers have no idea what their parents actually do for a living (at least beyond anything but a vague sense) and they have no idea how the things they learn in the classroom will relate to anything they will ever do.

The solution to that, of course, is right at the start of this: apprenticeship. Instead of loading teenagers up with extracurricular activities or menial jobs after school, why not pair them with actual professionals in meaningful relationships that benefit both of them?

Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s say there’s a teenager out there who dreams of being a writer. The school puts out a notice in the community looking for a writer who would take on an apprentice ten hours a week. The apprenticeship would pay something around minimum wage, but would also involve the apprentice building something of value on their own with at least some of that time. So, for example, I might have the apprentice spend five hours a week doing grunt work for me, then I would spend five hours each week with that person helping them to build a blog to share their writing, polish their writing skills, and so forth.

The student gets real experience in a field they’re interested in. I get to trade five hours of grunt work a week into five hours of meaningful mentoring a week.

You could do this at almost any job. Ten hours of apprenticeship a week. Five hours is spent handling grunt work for the master and five hours is spent doing meaningful work that builds into something more. Even better, in many cases, that meaningful work could be open-ended (like writing), enabling the apprentice to take the bull by the horns in their spare time and go even further.

How Apprenticeship Might Work

A computer programming apprentice

Spend five hours doing very basic system support and cleaning of equipment and five hours getting mentored as a contributor to a high-profile open source software project.

A park ranger apprentice

Spend five hours doing park cleanup and an additional five hours getting intense mentoring, going out on patrols, and setting up and running a large-scale project for park improvement.

A basketball coaching apprentice

Spend five hours handling managerial grunt work for the team and five hours watching game film and receiving lessons on how to motivate others, culminating with actually coaching lower-level sports.

An administrative assistant apprentice

Spend five hours collating and five hours involved in actual preparation of documents for the business.

A graphic design apprentice

Deal with correspondence for five hours and then spend five hours getting mentored on how to create great designs for real-world projects, culminating in handling a few smaller projects all on their own.

From there, it’s not hard to see how apprenticeship could work well in many career paths.

An apprenticeship, done well, can give a purpose and direction to a teenager that didn’t exist before. It can directly tie their classroom lessons to real-world work and initiate them into the true adult world that they often seek.

With that in mind, I am considering doing this very thing with the local high school, seeking out a student who is interested in writing to serve as an “apprentice” starting in the fall.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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