Mentors and Apprentices

Mentors and Apprentices

Gary North – February 26, 2018

Because I am writing a book on leadership, I am being forced to give considerable attention to the issues of teamwork.  This involves an understanding of apprenticeship and what is sometimes called mentorship.

Mentorship and apprenticeship are different.   Leadership books do not make this clear.


Apprenticeship in Western culture was a product of Greek training in healing.  The Hippocratic Oath reads:

I swear by Apollo, the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgment, I will keep this Oath and this contract:

To hold him who taught me this art equally dear to me as my parents, to be a partner in life with him, and to fulfill his needs when required; to look upon his offspring as equals to my own siblings, and to teach them this art, if they shall wish to learn it, without fee or contract; and that by the set rules, lectures, and every other mode of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the art to my own sons, and those of my teachers, and to students bound by this contract and having sworn this Oath to the law of medicine, but to no others.

Late medieval guilds extended this tradition.  The guilds had political control in the towns and cities.  Guilds used the power of civil government to restrict entry in their professions.  They reaped enormous rewards because of this political ability.

For someone to be legally allowed to practice a profession, he had to be certified by a particular guild.   To get certified, he had to come under the authority of a master craftsman.  The master craftsman hired young men, barely into their teens, to be apprentices.  They did the grunt work associated with the profession.  This enables owners to concentrate on what they did best, which was the final production of marketable goods.

If an apprentice survived several years, in some towns, he was allowed to become a journeyman.  His wages went up.  The level of skill required to be a journeyman was considerable.  You could only get this level of skill as an apprentice.  The journeyman did higher-quality work.  This was part of the division of labor.  It paid masters to hire a journeyman because they could invest even more time in producing final products, which was where the profit was.

The whole system depended on a complex system of regulations that were imposed by the local civil government.  It had to do with certification.

The master had to teach the journeyman skills that were not available to most people.  Before they even were eligible to receive this training, they had to develop skills as apprentices.  In other words, there was a three-rung ladder in operation.

The master knew that this journeyman was going to go to compete with him.  People did not move from city to city.  They had to go through the system of training again in order to become licensed if they moved to another town.  So, there was only one economic incentive for a master to train the journeyman in the basics of marketing.  That was when the journeyman agreed to marry his daughter.  Maybe the journeyman had already married his daughter.  Now, because of custom, the newly minted master craftsman was responsible for supporting his father-in-law in his old age.  This was a form of old age retirement insurance.  It was highly personal.

A journeyman had to produce a final product to be certified as a master craftsman.  Members of the local guild would grant this certification.  This was the equivalent of a Master’s degree.  He had to produce the equivalent of a Master’s thesis.  Today, if he is going to become licensed to teach in accredited academia, he has to get a Ph.D.  This requires a Ph.D. dissertation.  This dissertation is the equivalent of the journeyman’s qualifying piece of artistry.  A campus guild certifies it.  Normally, three members of the faculty read the dissertation, and all three approve it.

The system of apprenticeship trains people with minimal performance standards.  The master craftsman probably cannot impart the skills required to be a true master craftsman.  These skills cannot easily be articulated in language.  They constitute what is sometimes called implicit knowledge.

The apprentice had to become a journeyman, and the journeyman had to keep his eyes open as to how the market really worked.  The master craftsman was not his mentor unless the journeyman married his daughter.


A modern mentor is probably not a guild-certified master craftsman.  If he is, he is an outsider.  He is not a member of a guild. He is a successful practitioner as an independent producer.  This means that he has been able to satisfy customers.  He has performed competitively in a market that has much broader entry than a guild system.

One of the great economic problems in modern civilization is that we are steadily moving toward the re-imposition of something like the guild system of the late Middle Ages.  The whole system of professional licensing is based on state power to restrict entry.

A mentor probably does not teach hands-on skills.  People can learn these at a local community college.  They can also learn these skills as apprentices in the equivalent of a factory.  I recommend to my business students that they try to get a job as apprentices or interns in a local business that has at least $3 million of annual business income, and which was founded by the current CEO.  I tell them to keep their eyes open.  They should write down what they’re learning after they get home from work every day.  They are accumulating knowledge of how the system works.  They are probably not going to be taken under the wing of the CEO.  They may be taken under a boss’s wing.

The student is probably not going to be a competitor inside the business.  It costs time to become a mentor of such an employee, but there is no sure payoff for the company.  The intern will leave.  He may not even stay in town.  He goes off to college.  He does not return.  The business does not capitalize on the mentor’s time.  Most business owners do not encourage mentorship by employees.

In any case, some people like to be mentors. They like to be teachers. They want to be respected.  They want to have a sense of accomplishment that comes from training a newcomer in the basics of production.

The mentor offers no promise of certification. That is what distinguishes him from a master or even a journeyman who works with an apprentice. Apprenticeship is mostly about certification. Mentorship is about learning how to be successful in the world of market competition.

A mentor is probably outside the guild system. He is successful because customers have come back over and over to buy from him. Making repeat sales is a crucial skill for most businesses. This is not taught effectively in a classroom environment by a salaried bureaucrat. I don’t think it can be learned exclusively by reading books, and especially not college textbooks. These skills can be learned best on the job, but they are not taught on the job. They have to be observed. The person doing the observing has to ask the right questions mentally, and then go looking for the answers without tipping his hand as to what he is doing.

His students do not threaten a mentor. The student will not soon be able to compete directly with the mentor just because he or she has had some friendly verbal advice from the mentor. The mentor is motivated by an internal commitment to help a newcomer be successful in the marketplace. The mentor is not being paid by the student, either directly or indirectly, because the student does grunt work free of charge or a very low cost.  In other words, the student is not an apprentice.  The student is not looking for certification.  The student is the beneficiary of a rarity, namely, advice about how systems work from somebody who is outside the system, and who nevertheless has been successful.  He has not been successful in terms of a hierarchical bureaucracy.  He has been successful in terms of market competition.

In Japan, in large corporations, men who are going to be forcibly retired, but who have performed well, are assigned by the corporation to take one or more newcomers under their wings.  Someone eligible for senior management does not have the spare time to devote to what we call mentees.  I don’t like the word, but I don’t know what else to use.  The company cannot afford to pay such a person a high salary to train newcomers.  But it is willing to do this for middle managers who are going to be retired at age 55.  The corporation purchases continuity.  This system works mainly because somebody who starts with a company does not move to another company.  So, any time and money invested by the corporation in training entry-level employees is capitalized later when these employees rise faster in the corporate chain of command.

In the United States, any employee can quit at any time.  He can take with him whatever he has learned about the company that has employed him over the past couple of years.  So, there is no comparable system of mentorship in American corporate life.


It boils down to this.  An apprentice is not taught the basics of marketing or even management.  He is taught to perform minimal tasks.  This gets him up to speed faster.  He is enabled to be more productive for the employer.  Since the company is probably generating at least two dollars for every dollar it spends on labor costs.  It is to the company’s advantage to increase the productivity of everybody in the company.  An observant student will pick up what are basically trade secrets to the company.  He is not allowed to sell these, but if he learns how the system runs, and if he learns more about the market into which the company sells its products or services, then he is gaining extremely valuable information.  But he is doing this on his own. Nobody is teaching him these secrets.

If you want to be successful in business, you either have to learn how to be a very observant apprentice or else you have to persuade a skilled small business owner to teach you.  His time is valuable.  He does not have spare time to teach you advanced marketing skills unless he can see a payoff either monetarily or emotionally for making the investment.  If he takes you on as a mentee, you had better be thankful.  You had better be enthusiastic. You had better show up on time every time.

Most importantly, you must demonstrate that you have learned what he has taught you and that you have internalized these principles.  He must see that he is changing your life for the better.  That is probably his greatest incentive.  Your job is to keep improving.

Once you have found him, never let him go.

Updated 15 Nov. 2019