An Alternative to College this Fall

Image: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

If you’re enrolled in college for September, there’s a strong case to defer your semester in September. There are better ways to learn during the four months. For example, you could start an online business, or build projects to learn new skills

Both of these ideas have small risks (e.g., four months), with huge potential benefits. Your business could make some money. Your project could get attention in the industry, or become the jewel of your portfolio. At the very least, even if you fail, you can share something interesting to potential employers. But there is an equally powerful alternative that I haven’t mentioned yet: Become an apprentice.

The Case for an Apprenticeship

An apprenticeship is an opportunity to work, in exchange for developing your character, mind, and skillset. Most importantly, an apprenticeship is the first step to mastery. Some may consider an apprenticeship a raw deal — unpaid work, for a business that you don’t own. Yet people who have done apprenticeships call it one of the best ways to learn, which leads to earning in the future. You have to decide if the apprenticeship fits your goals. 

I know friends who have done their own versions of an apprenticeship even after college; the management consultant does an unpaid external secondment to get closer to the field of technology, an ecommerce entrepreneur does free consultations with businesses on their finances, or the agency provides pro bono creative work to get clients in a new industry. Unpaid work is a big part of the business world. In addition to the learning opportunity, here are some of the more tangible benefits of an apprenticeship:

  • Someone else fronts the operating and learning costs. If you’re getting paid $0, but you have the ability to influence a $20,000 budget, that’s $20,000 worth of learning that didn’t come out of your pocket (which it would have if you started your own company). I now run my own business, and I do get to see the profit-generating side of it, but there are a lot of moments when I wish I had the freedom to learn without fronting the costs myself. 
  • Meet other talented people. Whoever you work for, they should already work with other really good people. In my case, even though I was working remotely, we formed working relationships and can vouch for each other. I know two people ended up starting businesses together. 
  • Voluntary commitment. An apprenticeship is a commitment.You’re not committing your own money, but you still commit to delivering for someone else. You can’t just wake up and not “feel” like doing something, which happens to some people when they start their own businesses. An apprenticeship provides the structure and processes you need to get started.
  • Learn from experience. Historically, apprentices work for master craftspeople. They don’t work for other apprentices. It’s your responsibility, as the apprentice, to figure out if the person you’re working for is actually worth working for. Try not to apprentice for someone whose work you don’t respect. But, don’t be afraid to apprentice for someone who’s punching above their weight class or moving into something new. In my case, I worked with a master musician who had always seen ahead of the curve with technology, as he was starting up his first funded technology startup. When I thought about the money people would pay to have lunch with him, I realized that I was actually coming out ahead. 

Notice I didn’t say that an apprenticeship should turn into a full-time paid working opportunity. I’ve seen apprenticeships go well, and I’ve seen apprenticeships go poorly. At the end of the day, the apprenticeship itself is the reward. To be a fly on the wall, while important decisions are made, or while somebody practices their craft, is the benefit. To get insight into an industry you don’t understand. To build your body of work and refine your own thinking.

These days, there are still plenty of apprenticeship opportunities, but most of them don’t float around on job boards or anything. I’m going to show you how I got mine and what you can do to get yours:

How I Got My Apprenticeship

In 2013, Ryan Leslie was preparing to launch his new album, Black Mozart. He wasn’t interested in launching it the traditional way. So he set up a Shopify store, shared it with his followers, and told them this would be the only place they could get his music. I’d been following Ryan’s music for several years, starting with his in-studio videos to his journey becoming an independent recording artist and his short films. I signed up without a second thought.

Around that time, he had tweeted out that he was looking for interns and taking in applications. I had just graduated and was working at Xtreme Labs, but I applied anyway, and wrote down some ideas of how I thought I could support his work. (Charlie Hoehn’s Recession Proof Graduate is a great resource.) I didn’t hear back, so I figured the application fell flat.

A few weeks later, Ryan released his Black Mozart film to fans, and I bought a copy. He responded in the receipt that he saw my application. We chatted later in the week, and he told me a bit more about what he was working on. I didn’t know it then, but my internship unofficially started. 

In the beginning, most of my energy was spent coming up with ideas and pitching them. I had just graduated college without much work experience to show, so I had to rely on what I knew. I was familiar with internet marketing, I was a passable writer, and I had very rudimentary graphic design and coding skills. 

I looked for opportunities and anticipated potential problems. Some of the ideas received enthusiastic responses; others were critically considered, and many others were ignored. Here are some that we worked on together:

  • One of my ideas was to support him with search engine optimization, so I started my efforts there. I also noticed that his Wikipedia page got 25,000+ monthly views, so I figured we could use it to promote the startup.
  • I built the startup’s first website. (Another look via Dribbble.)
  • I supported Ryan and his team with writing wherever I could. For example, I wrote and shipped a press release that got coverage here. I’d also occasionally write more administrative things, like application forms for conferences. 

All of this took place remotely. I was based in Toronto, but Ryan already had a structured core team in New York City, as well as interns (who worked with him in-person, and with a much deeper time commitment). At the start, for me, there was no formal role or even a job title. I just wanted to be useful (i.e., “add value”) at the start of the relationship, and learn as much as I could. 

How You can Get Your First Apprenticeship

My conversation with Ryan Leslie may have started off with an application form, but we continued it with other things. I bought his album and short film. I sent social media graphics he could use before the first time we spoke, and I provided dozens of ideas before I even got a formal team email address. The key is to listen closely, and provide value. If you haven’t gotten the person’s time yet, then anticipate the problems they may face. Show them specific something they’re not seeing, or support them somewhere they’re not supported already. You don’t just offer to work for free; you get in where you fit in.

Maybe you don’t even start off where I did. Maybe you start by interviewing them for your blog. Or you email them a note from an article you read, that connects with their business. Or you start by sending them good energy — a quick, short, note of appreciation for one of their recent works. Or you get introduced by a friend. There’s no shortage of ways to get someone’s attention; the higher profile they are, the more effort you’ll need to put into it. 

The returns of going back to college are much more uncertain than before. Try creating an apprenticeship opportunity for yourself for four months; if you fail, or if you don’t like the work opportunity, then you can always return to school. Deviate for a semester. Although this unusual path seems riskier, it’s really the safer one.