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Can This New Nonprofit Make Apprenticeships Cool Again?

Today only .3 percent of the American workforce are apprentices. E[nstitute] wants to change that.


What do Jamie Oliver, Ozzy Osborne, Calvin Klein, and Elvis Presley have in common? Besides being extremely talented in their respective fields, all four of them were apprentices at some point in their life.

Since the beginning of time, apprenticeships have been a means for people to learn their craft or trade from an expert. It was the exchange of skills from the old generation to the current one. The practice, which originated in Europe, emigrated to the United States when craft workers began to settle in the country. A contract between a master craftsmen and an apprentice was drawn up and agreed upon. Years later, the apprentice would hope to have enough capital to start his or her own shop.


The success and relevance of apprenticeships continued until the early 20th century when the Great Depression killed almost all training. As the century progressed, formal schooling became more popular and mainstream. According to a report from American University economist Robert Lerman, today only 0.3 percent of the American workforce are apprentices.

But an unlikely duo is trying to change just that. A year ago, Kane Sarhan, 25, and Shaila Ittycheria, 30, were colleagues on two opposite sides of the company LocalResponse. Sarhan had joined LocalResponse as the apprentice to the founder and successful entrepreneur, Nihal Mehta. Ittycheria, in contrast, was the one neck-deep in the corporate world. She spent some time working in Microsoft's Finance Rotation Program, graduated from Harvard Business School, and later landed a job as a hiring manager at LocalResponse.

"Shaila and I were at Lillie's in Union Square talking about life and work when the topic of higher education came up," recalls Sarhan. Ittycheria, when interviewing college graduates from the most prestigious schools, realized that most had no value to add to the company nor did they have any marketable skills. In contrast, Sarhan had lived through two apprenticeships, finding them truly valuable.

So that brief meeting over coffee eventually snowballed into what is now known as E[nstitute], a tuition-free—including housing—two-year apprenticeship program that "provides an alternative path to traditional post-secondary education." The inaugural class of fifteen fellows, ranging from high school graduates to college dropouts, will work underneath some of the most brilliant entrepreneurs in the New York City technology scene, people like Ben Lerer and Mark Peter Davis.

"While in the program, the fellows take a blended curriculum of on-the-job, real world education and a supplemental online curriculum of general education coursework in business, technology, and design," explain Ittycheria and Sarhan. "During their first year, our fellows are on a business 101 track and are exposed to everything from financing to go-to market strategies. During their second year, fellows pick a major and focus on one area of business." John Dewey's philosophy of "learning by doing" is even plastered underneath the E[nstitute] logo on their site.

When I met with the fellows a few weeks ago, one fellow gleefully told me that he learned more in the first week of the program than in his four years of college. Quite a powerful statement.

"What's incredible about E[nstitute] is that I am excited to get up everyday because I am doing what I love," says Ethan Horne, a recent high school graduate and a fellow apprenticing under Jason Beckerman at Unified.

Jasmine Gao, a fellow apprenticing under Hilary Mason at Bit.ly, tells me, "E[nstitute] has taught me how to learn. During every networking event, guest speaker session and project, there was always an influx of information. However," says Gao, "what determined whether or not I really learned was not the amount of information I managed to commit to memory but rather the types of conclusions I made and how I applied those to reinforce and/or change certain behaviors and beliefs for my own improvement."

Although Europe still has more of a stomach for apprenticeships, perhaps E[nstitute] can become the driving force behind reviving the practice here. It certainly didn't hurt the cause when President Obama, on The View, revealed that after his presidency, he would like to "go around to various cities" and help to "create mentorships and apprenticeships" and give "young people the sense of possibility." Maybe the President should team up with this dynamic duo.

To draw from my experience, I can't count how many students I've met who have never taken a single risk in their life, did something that society didn't spoon-feed them, and haven't chased their dreams because they feel they're too young.

So, are you going to be a pencil pusher for the rest of your life or someone who pushed the human race forward? What Ittycheria and Sarhan's creativity has created is a program that molds and shapes an innovator and we need plenty more of those.

Young apprentice in industry photo via Shutterstock

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