Apprenticeship: Regaining Its Rightful Position as the Best Pathway to a Rewarding Career

(Image credit: Mark Rippetoe)

At this point in the history of the world, a college education ain’t what it used to be. Since the federal government annexed the student loan market in 2009, the ship is sinking faster than ever. Never before has something so worthless been so damned expensive. When a kid can graduate with a bachelor’s in Sociology $75,000 in debt and no sociology job in sight to pay for it, some very bad decisions have been made based on some very bad analysis.

I graduated in 1983 with a degree in Petroleum Geology. This also happened to coincide with a collapse in the price of oil – even good decisions about your major can turn bad through no fault of your own. A glut of oil beginning in the early eighties re-sorted the job market for exploration people, and what was previously a viable plan for a long-ish education became “sociology” pretty quick. I had to move to Plan B – I bought a gym and taught myself what to do.

I was essentially on the self-apprenticeship program. This is most assuredly the long version: I had no one to teach me how to run a barbell-based strength and conditioning facility, since no one did it that way in 1984. I invented the process through much trial and even more error, and I finally arrived at a simple way to run the process. The results are in the form of our two flagship texts, and this method is working all over the world, making people stronger in less time than any other method available anywhere. And lots of people are running their gyms using my methods – they are my apprentices.

(Image credit: Mark Rippetoe)

I look back from here upon my first years in business and think about how much time I’d have saved if I’d had my book to teach me what I didn’t know back then. And some interesting things occur to me.

First, every kid who gets a job working for a plumber, an electrician, a stonemason, a carpenter, a house framer, a heavy equipment operator, or any other master tradesmen has a great opportunity to learn the skills necessary to become a successful businessman in a trade that’s not going away as long as people are living and working in structures built by somebody else. Some of these apprenticeships are formalized (the electricians have done it this way for decades) and some of them are informal relationships between older professionals and younger kids who have enough sense to know a good opportunity when they see one.

Second, colleges and universities have really dropped the ball here. Historically, universities insisted that they were not vocational schools, but rather Institutions of Higher Education, concerned with preparing the human mind. It’s difficult to understand how an accounting or engineering degree is other than vocational, but the haughty attitude was dragged out when it was useful – like when we asked about jobs in a depressed market.

But our Geology degree was not Philosophy. We were there to learn a trade, and markets change. But we got a hard science education – with chemistry, physics, calculus, and labs – and hard science is more useful than soft arts. If you have to have calculus to graduate, your job prospects are pretty good because, as it turns out, employers are always looking for people who can complete difficult tasks. An Art History degree has a rather restricted employment potential in any economy, and yet student loans are obtained with very little effort necessary to justify the lending of the money. Couple that with the recent trend to make the university into a cultural experiment run by the students instead of a place to learn things that are actually useful, and you have a dysfunctional situation.

But the proliferation of degrees in fields that have recently come into existence for the sole purpose of granting a degree in that field is a problem for students who are poorly equipped to decide about the value of time, money, and wasted potential. Women’s studies “is an academic field that draws on feminist and interdisciplinary methods in order to place women’s lives and experiences at the center of study, while examining social and cultural constructs of gender, systems of privilege and oppression, and the relationships between power and gender as they intersect with other identities and social locations such as race, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, and disability.”* Pray, how does one monetize a four-year degree in such a thing outside of a teaching position, doing this to other young people?

And monetization, however gauche and common you may perceive it to be, is the only thing that gets you off the dole or out of your parents’ house. College should theoretically head in that direction, so that time and money are not wasted. But the Federal Direct Student Loan Program does not discriminate on the basis of the potential to repay the debt using the skills acquired during the loan. This has left a lot of people in a bad position.

The older way to learn a profession is coming back into popularity. Reading the law was the customary path to the bar exam before the rise of the law school and its protected status in most jurisdictions. Apprenticeship is a cheaper, more productive way into certain professions, and it has the distinct advantage of getting paid while you learn the trade instead of going into debt for an uncertain outcome.

My own field of strength and conditioning is an excellent example of precisely the circumstance in which an apprenticeship program is far superior to the conventional Exercise Science degree-route into the profession. To my knowledge, no school in this country prepares a student to work effectively in this industry above the level of an industry-standard machine-based commercial gym.

So we’re doing it. Our Starting Strength Gym franchise chain prominently features paid apprenticeship as the staffing model, with interested young people working through a directed course of study under the mentorship of experienced coaches, with hands-on experience provided by their work in the gym. Our online coaching subsidiary provides a similar opportunity for people who want to coach in the online sector of the market.

(Image credit: Mark Rippetoe)

Strength coaching is a science-based profession, and the best coaches have a science background. Along with the coaching experience acquired on the job from Day One, our apprenticeship program features a course of study in the basic sciences (often not required for a PE degree), along with the theory and practice of effective barbell training (never provided in a PE degree). Of supreme importance is a personal strength training history – most of the tools a strength coach uses every day are developed under the bar, because you cannot adequately coach that which you have not personally experienced. A university PE program cannot make you train. We can, if you want to stay in the program, and a strong squat represents the ultimate buy-in.

Some professions are best prepared for by working in the profession at an entry level that escalates as competence is developed. Education, experience, and an intimate understanding of the details are seldom adequately provided for such professions by a university. Apprenticeship is regaining its rightful position as the best pathway into a rewarding career, and is thankfully in a position to bolster an eroding secondary education environment.


*Shaw, Susan M.; Lee, Janet (2014-04-23). Women’s voices, feminist visions: classic and contemporary readings (Sixth ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0078027000. OCLC 862041473.