The apprentice game


The underlying structure of an apprenticeship is that of a game.

Many elements of gaming, such as achievable benchmarks, feedback and easily understood steps to completion, are present in apprenticeships. In the world of apprenticeships, instruction is embedded in the work, and is built, by accident rather than design, around a game model.

Apprenticeships, like games, give context and meaning, providing a narrative arc sorely lacking in many careers. There is little need to gamify apprenticeships, because they already have elements of gaming built into them.

Currently, apprenticeships are a hot topic not only in higher education, but also as part of the economic discussion around supply chain and labor shortages. Large sums of effort and capital are being leveraged to grow apprenticeships and apply them in new and surprising ways.

Apprentices, and the skilled workers they become, are a means to correct critical labor shortages. This is true in the traditional skilled trades apprenticeships, as well as in emerging apprenticeship fields of healthcare and logistics, high tech training in IT andcyber security. Discussions of apprenticeships have evolved to include how they might be improved, streamlined and made appealing to larger numbers of people, for greater access, equity and inclusion.

Clues to engage more effectively 

The connection between apprenticeships and games is not meant to trivialize or make light of them, but rather to point out the ways this venerable model for education holds clues for how we might more effectively engage students in the future. The advantages of apprenticeships are well known. They are an “earn as you learn” model, meaning wages are earned by the student apprentice during their educational training, as opposed to being paid out of pocket (or worse yet, deferred with interest in the form of ubiquitous student loans).

Apprentices get experience on the job, which helps prepare them for the workforce and they provide students with an opportunity to determine if they have a passion for the work. Mentors provide valuable insights into their respective careers. Wages increase as apprentices move through their programs toward achievable and easily quantifiable levels of expertise based on hours and competencies. 

Like games, apprenticeships have built within them a sense of purpose and achievable goals. In a game, the reward system is often based on points or levels achieved. Goals are designed within specific parameters. Games provide feedback in the form of points or penalties, while specific outcomes lead to rewards and new levels of and achievement.

The most successful games are challenging, but not prohibitively so. In an apprenticeship, the reward system is found in increasing wages and skills that ultimately lead to a fulfilling career with wages for a journeyperson being on par with jobs requiring master’s degrees in some industries. 

Leveling up

Of course, not all rules apply to all games. Apprenticeships, like games, can be time-based, competency-based or both. Apprentices, as with those playing a game, are bound by the rules, as they are outlined by the related trade instructor and employer in the apprenticeship agreement.

Guidelines for an apprenticeship are clearly established as part of the apprenticeship experience. From applicant, to apprentice, to journeyperson, increasingly complex tasks are encountered throughout the process. The apprenticeship has a structure, which not only allows the apprentice to improve, but requires consistent improvement. Doing the work, as instructed by an employer, while building knowledge in the classroom, is what is needed to fulfill requisite hours and gain the essential competencies, to level up, to win. 

Employers’ role

As in many games, apprenticeships can function as both single and collective multiplayer groups, known sometimes in video games as guilds. Not coincidentally, guilds historically trained apprentices in a manner that set the precedent for contemporary apprenticeships. Apprentices sometimes work within a cohort sharing mentors, attending classes together and reporting to the same job site.

Other times the apprentice is the sole person functioning in that capacity for an employer. Employer demand decides the number of apprentices at any given time. Employers also have input in what is being taught on the job and, as is often the case, what order the knowledge is being learned in the classroom.

By assisting the apprentice to realize their ambition, employers generate greater levels of retention among their employees. In this way, they incorporate the game element known as “stickiness,” or tendency of a game to keep the player engaged for long periods of time. 

Adopting elements to education

There is a democratizing element to apprenticeships, which allows anyone, from any background, to pursue a course of study and paid training. Through apprenticeships, barriers to employment are curtailed. The Catch-22 of needing experience to get a job and needing a job to get experience is circumvented by the apprenticeship process.

Apprentices have a sense of identity within their craft, they are novices acquiring skills and gaining knowledge. There is the reward of a job well done, of learning something new, of building a network while developing skills and earning a living. 

The question then is how we can employ these elements in other areas of work, education and training. Gamification is a suggested way to work toward these goals. The utilization of game elements makes an experience more interactive and responsive, and are embraced for the ability to motivate and entice students toward increasing levels of success. Game design can induce students to work effectively, learn more and achieve more.

Under any circumstances, given the ongoing success of apprenticeship training, apprenticeships are a winning game.

About the Author

Will Emerson
Dr. Will Emerson is director of apprenticeships and external partnerships for the Health and Human Services division at Lansing Community College (Michigan). He formerly worked as director of student success initiatives for the Michigan Association of State Universities.
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