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Published 1/21/2008

In medieval times, and even later, many craftsmen were required to serve an apprenticeship, a few years working under the tutelage of a Master Craftsman, where the apprentice both learned about the field and daily practiced his skills. After the apprenticeship he graduated to journeyman, which originally meant one who traveled to a variety of different shops to hone skills. Only after passing a difficult test, and/or creating a "masterpiece," was he inducted into the guild of master craftsman. Fittingly the circle then repeated, as Masters were expected to take on an apprentice to ensure an adequate supply of future guild members.

Some trades, like plumbers and electricians, still retain much of this history. Even engineering careers, to some extent, mirror the model. A junior engineer is a just-graduated apprentice who has a lot of knowledge but few practical skills. I suppose we could torture the analogy by calling a senior engineer a journeyman, and a registered Professional Engineer a Master Craftsman inducted into a state-sponsored guild after passing a very difficult test.

My dad had a full scholarship to MIT back in the 40s. That prestigious education inflated his ego, so he was appalled to find that when he started his first job, at Grumman Aircraft, they stuck him on the assembly line for six months building airplanes. That short apprenticeship gave him some insight into how products really go together.

I often have a new grad connect a watt 10 ohm resistor across a lab supply and invite him to predict what will happen as we slowly crank up the voltage. He'll make all sorts of calculations about amps and whatnot, but will be shocked when the resistor turns red, starts smoking, and bursts into flames. College gives engineers an important foundation, but they learn real engineering on the job. This is an apprenticeship by any measure.

Except when there's no mentoring. Cutbacks means more young hires are left to flounder, expected to be highly productive a day after graduation. It appears internships, once widely available to third and four-year students, are less common than of yore. Though a lot of big companies still issue the title "junior engineer," I see many outfits that peg a new graduate "engineer." Is this, like grade inflation, an ego-boosting embellishment that ignores reality? Or is the old apprentice/journeyman model inappropriate for engineering?

Does your company offer internships? Do they call a new graduate a "junior engineer," or offer any sort of apprentice-like mentoring program?