Jim Billington famously once wrote, “The traditional mentor-protégé relationship has gone the way of the mainframe computer—while it hasn’t completely disappeared, it isn’t nearly as common as it used to be.”
Mentorship programs used to be the norm, every big company had one. Toyota, once famous for staunchly refusing to ditch their famous program, eventually abandoned the old ways and then got slammed in the press for it when they had multiple recalls in 2010.
So why did these programs disappear? Probably flatter organizations, fewer “gray-haired senior vice president[s]” as Billington put it, and shorter company tenure. What’s the point in giving someone a mentor if they’re going to jump ship in two or three years anyway?
But if you look closer, you see that, while mentorship has been constantly evolving throughout human history, it’s never gone away completely. Humans have always needed professional guidance. And we still do, we’re simply at another juncture, a turning point when we need to re-tool the system for new industries and new kinds of work. Everyone knows the very notion of work is changing. Independent consultants are on the rise, as are remote offices, and startups. It’s more important than ever that we have a way for young people to get insight and guidance as careers become increasingly independent and individualistic.
A Look Back
Mentorships go all the way back to the dawn of the written word. The Code of Hammurabi, a list of rules carved into a dark stone stele, mentions them as a part of daily life for Ancient Babylonians. Likewise apprenticeships had a huge influence over the politics and economies in Ancient Rome, Medieval England, and even the early European colonies in North America.
We usually blame the Industrial Revolution for killing apprenticeships as they decimated small craft trades, but that’s not exactly true. Just like today, it was more of a metamorphosis. While factories did lure people away from small shops, these new employees were completely untrained in the new trades. New industries emerged so fast, workers who knew textiles and leatherwork had to rapidly pick up metalwork and machine building. And it wasn’t an easy transition.
Factories had to invest in on-the-job apprenticeships, sometimes spending a full year teaching their new employees before they saw any profit from the work. But as business boomed skilled hands were in such fierce demand employees could often afford to violate contracts and jump ship for a better paying position once their training was complete. You can see the problem here, right? Poaching your employees was cheaper than training them, but as more companies traded in apprenticeship programs and focused on tempting new workers away from other factories, there were fewer skilled worker to go around and with so many industries still emerging and growing, this created an even larger demand.
By the time World War II was over countries all over the world were facing this problem. Germany, essentially building a country from scratch (and keen to keep the cultural stereotypes alive) built a complex, regimented, and highly regulated system with carefully designed apprenticeship programs for each industry. In the U.S., it was a bit more helter-skelter and individualized (again, stereotypes). While some companies created their own, in-house apprenticeship programs that trained workers slowly over years — in turn creating “the company ladder” and preventing such easy poaching, other companies (particularly those in white-collar industries) abandoned in-depth training altogether and recruited directly from colleges and high schools. Every company had a slightly different approach.
But that system isn’t enough anymore. Suddenly newspapers are flooded with stories about the skyrocketing costs of higher education and the absolute dearth of job opportunities their degrees actually create. So we’ve started talking about mentorship again — one-to-one guidance that might lift us up out of this hazy space and help us navigate the next half century.
A Blueprint for the Future
Once again we’re seeing industries change at lightning speed, and we’re struggling to keep up. How can you be expected to know where to go in a career that didn’t even exist twenty years ago? When companies started ditching their apprenticeship programs, we didn’t have another system to take its place. But we desperately need to create one.
Looking to the future, it’s hard to imagine this new industrial revolution slowing down. In fact, it looks like we’re only getting started. In order to teach a new generation how to succeed in this new world, we need a more dynamic method. We need an individualistic approach. We need to forget company mentors and focus instead on career mentors, those whose allegiance falls to the individual, not their employer. Industries and careers change fast these days, and history tells us that the key to thriving in this new world is to embrace a new, evolving form of mentorship.