Embracing apprenticeship as a way of life—a new definition for an old idea

Apprenticeship is an increasingly important topic in the world of talent and one that comes up often in conversations with both McKinsey colleagues and learning and development professionals around the world. Recently I joined a panel at the Jobs for the Future (JFF) Horizons conference, and I was inspired to hear how apprenticeship programs are generating tremendous impact for individuals, revealed through metrics like accelerated time to competency, increased financial opportunity, increased role responsibilities, and accelerated promotion readiness. The programs are also having a broader impact on organizations and communities, creating increasingly diverse workforces and new opportunities for those in historically disadvantaged communities.

When most people think of apprenticeship they think of structured, time-bound programs, like internships, where trade and vocational professionals (for example, carpenters, electricians, and automotive workers) learn their crafts.

I believe that this programmatic view of apprenticeship is limiting. It is like the increasingly outdated belief that the most effective learning happens in classroom settings, when in fact, learning happens every time we read a book, talk with a trusted mentor, or hear tough feedback. Similarly, when we expand the definition of apprenticeship, it can unlock new opportunities for growth and development in every field of work, in any organization.

At McKinsey, we see apprenticeship as a “way of life,” rather than a program. We treat apprenticeship itself as a learnable and teachable skill, as the foundation of our development culture, and as the basis of long-term mentorship and sponsorship relationships.

Apprenticeship as a way of life is a particularly important concept for the kind of complex cognitive work that takes place in almost every kind of office setting—from law firms to marketing agencies to finance, HR, and procurement functions, among many others. By making on-the-job learning a deliberate feature of their culture, organizations can accelerate skill development, proficiency, and mastery for otherwise hard-to-teach responsibilities. Here are a few of the building blocks that we believe are required to make apprenticeship a way of life, drawing on our firm’s own research on the topic.

Make apprenticeship an expectation, reinforced through performance evaluations

In our Leadership Development Model (LDM), the first competency listed for every person in the firm is “apprentices others.” Developing the skill of apprenticeship and meeting this expectation is part of how we evaluate every colleague, from associate to senior partner, both client-facing colleagues and the professionals running our internal functions. 

We have defined what being great at apprenticing others looks like for different roles and how it progresses across seniority levels, so colleagues understand what is expected of them at each stage of their career. For example, associates (our junior consulting colleagues) are expected to share any expertise or strengths they have brought into the firm with those around them and to proactively seek and provide feedback. Later as partners (our most senior consulting colleagues), they are expected to purposefully create opportunities for team members to grow, foster a learning culture, and provide real-time coaching and feedback to their team members.

Define the enabling skills of each role and make those readily accessible to all employees

To enable apprenticeship “at scale,” organizations need to take complex responsibilities and break them into a structured set of skills and expectations. We’ve published a series of Technical Competency Models, as well as our Leadership Development Model, so the skills each person needs to develop are clear. We make these models readily available to each person (and the leaders who are coaching them), so colleagues can use them to both develop their forward-looking leadership growth plans and refer to them in day-to-day coaching and feedback conversations.

Encourage champions to tell their authentic stories

All change efforts require visible leadership support. Time and again we find that the messages that break through are the vulnerable, personal stories from our leaders. One recent example was an influential senior leader standing among his peers describing the uncomfortably candid feedback he received as a young consultant, which changed the course of his professional life. His openness about his strengths and insecurities brought to life the reason we see it as a professional obligation to develop one another and ourselves.

You get what you measure, so measure apprenticeship

We routinely study the health of apprenticeship in our organization. We measure it through a variety of survey tools, including our annual organizational health survey; our annual Mentorship, Apprenticeship, and Sponsorship Survey, which helps us to identify our firm’s top people developers; and our recently developed apprenticeship maturity diagnostic, which studies the maturity of core apprenticeship skill sets in various populations across the firm.

This range of measurement techniques helps us study those doing it best to capture and radiate best practices, and create structured interventions with teams or departments that are consistently below average on both volume and quality of apprenticeship experiences.

Just like we believe in the importance of formal learning, we are equally invested in the power of apprenticeship as a “way of life” to build skill, create opportunity, and create a vibrant, energizing development culture. I am personally excited to continue collaborating with others who are helping broaden the boundaries of what apprenticeship looks like to reach into even more corners of the workforce.

To learn more about our work on apprenticeship, listen to The McKinsey Podcast “Apprenticeship gets a makeover.