A half green and gray image that says "The Apprenticeship Report."

DO YOU KNOW the difference between an “internship” and an “apprenticeship”? Many people can’t distinguish between the two, so this month I want to spend a little time talking about both their differences and their similarities.

The first thing to know is that internships are educator driven, while apprenticeships are employer driven. University professors or guidance counselors often fulfill internship opportunities by reaching out to various companies on behalf of their students, asking if the companies would consider taking them on for ten or twelve weeks in the summer.

While both parties—students and businesses—hope that this arrangement will turn out to their benefit, on a purely practical level internships can be problematic. Anyone who’s ever hosted an intern for the first time knows that it isn’t designed for productivity for the company. Two months really isn’t enough time for the student interns to get up to speed on the company’s processes, and yet they need to be kept busy doing something useful. The best internship arrangements are those in which the managers create a meaningful niche for the interns, one that allows them to contribute while getting a true taste of the company’s culture.

For the businesses, internships are most useful in assessing the interns’ “soft skills.” How do they interact with the other workers? Are they able to communicate effectively? Are they team players? What about their work ethic? Are they eager to learn? Are they flexible and adaptable? Despite the drawbacks, companies view internships it as a very positive recruiting tactic because they get to test-drive the candidate.

As for the interns, they get to observe and absorb the company’s personality—the organization’s soft skills. Do the people who work there seem happy? Are they engaged, motivated, enthusiastic? Do they like and respect the boss? Does the boss seem to like and respect them? If the idea of going to work at that company feels like fun, then the intern has a leg up—or at least a foot in the door. And if the manager is impressed with the intern, then the internship has served its best purpose.

While internships are a getting-to-know-one-another process, with no commitment on either side, apprenticeships are all about commitment.

An apprenticeship is a formalized, employer-driven employment program. The company has said to the apprentice, we’re committed to your becoming a full-time employee here, and we’re going to spend some time upfront teaching you the skills you need, and we’ll pay you while you learn. And at the end of the apprenticeship, you’ll be on a career path with the company.

So an apprenticeship isn’t just a test drive. It’s a commitment at the highest level for a company—in fact, it’s even more of a commitment than what companies have typically made in the past to somebody just fresh out of school. How can companies have this level of faith that an apprentice will work out? As I mentioned in an earlier report, we’ve learned that in states where there’s an independent agency facilitating the apprenticeships, that’s the best predictor of success. In Arkansas, we at ACDS will serve that role. We’ll be screening potential apprentices and then matching their skills and interests with the companies in our program. It takes a village.

Anybody who’s ever run a company knows that hiring good people is hard. For many, many hiring situations, all a manager has to go on is a series of one-hour candidate interviews with people up their chain of command. Then at some point they have to gamble that the person is going to work out.

For both companies and candidates, the best situation is when a person moves easily, naturally, from internship to apprenticeship. That’s why I like to think of internships as “perfect-world pre-apprenticeships.” Just recently, at an IT Apprenticeship Accelerator sponsored by ACDS, one of our panelists spoke to just this point. He said it’s great when companies can identify a candidate early through internship. In that case, you just roll him or her into your apprenticeship program as they’re getting ready to graduate.

It’s great for the candidate, too. Our panelist told the story about a young former intern, now apprentice, who’s actually going to delay his graduation because he’s already started his apprenticeship. So he’s working full time and is only taking a few hours for these next three semesters. Yes, it would’ve been nice to finish school earlier, but he’s earning his living already, and that’s helping him offset some of that payment to the school. Because guess what? Now that he’s a full-time employee, he’s getting 75-percent tuition reimbursement on the remaining semesters of his schooling. What a deal, right?

Apprentices don’t have to come from a degree program; they can come from anywhere. But wherever they come from, they like the idea that registered apprenticeships are a formal program. That means there’s a definite incentive for companies to reach a broader audience by not just saying, Hey, here’s a job posting. It’s much more attention-getting to say, Hey, we’re doing these formal apprenticeship programs. To candidates, that displays a company’s commitment to help train and develop them, to shepherd them through the program and help them get on their productive career path quicker than they would otherwise.

Now we can all see the purpose of internships, the commitment and staying power of apprenticeships, and how the two types of programs can—ideally—work together.

Lonnie Emard,

Apprenticeship Director