modern tech apprenticeships, paying to learn on the job, getting paid to intern, should i pay my interns, should i pay my apprentices, should i pay an apprentice, should i pay for my employee to learn, should i pay for my employee's education, should i pay for my employee's class

Many of the folks in the WordPress space have come up without a formal education (or without a tech specific education), and became successful through avid learning and self-motivation.

John Hawkins is an excellent example of someone who paved his own path without a formal education: he founded 9seeds, is well-respected for his work with WordPress, and is now the Business Development Manager for WebDevStudiosHelen Hou-Sandí went to college for piano, not tech, and is self-taught in web development; she is the Director of Platform Experience at 10upLisa Sabin-Wilson, partner and COO of WDS, worked as a nurse before she heard about WordPress (when it was in its infancy). After further investigation, she dropped everything to make it her new career…and became the author of WordPress For Dummies and a force to behold in the WP space. Brad Parbs dropped out of college while studying computer science to make his own websites; he is currently a Senior WordPress engineer at Human Made.

Our own founder, Justin, funded Zao’s earliest days by working at Burger King, and now Zao is a burgeoning WordPress eCommerce and custom development agency that is experiencing an incredible growth spurt, after over a decade of steady upward success. JT was a house painter who started fiddling around with WordPress for his church website, joined the WebDevStudios team, advanced to Director of Engineering, and is now a Managing Partner of Zao.

Some of these folks landed in companies where they had an opportunity to unofficially apprentice: they found a position that allowed them to work and learn simultaneously. Others ended up using their own determination and the educational access built into the open-source community to create their own companies. Although they might not have gone through a formal apprenticeship in the way that many of us think, they still sought opportunities for their skills to be developed and to be mentored while also still providing for themselves and their families.

“I don’t pay people.”

Recently, I heard this uttered–without an ounce of shame–on a panel talking about the rise of apprenticeship programs.

Apprenticeships are growing in popularity, particularly in the tech industry where employee retention is low, truly entry-level jobs are rare, and where many people want to work, but don’t necessarily have the applicable skill sets for the positions that are available. The panel was a group of experts discussing their experiences taking on apprentices and how that works for them. One of those experts said the above.

Side note: While I understand that there may be curiosity about who said this or what panel it was, I am intentionally not providing that information as I think it’s counterproductive. This isn’t intended to be a “call out” post, but to examine the flaws in this particular approach.

This expert takes on apprentices and expects them to go through that learning and working process for nine whole months without compensation. His argument is that he doesn’t view an apprentice as “free labor,” but rather, that they benefit more from learning from him than he does from having them work on his team. He also said that his apprentices tend to be “career switchers,” which means they lack specific industry experience, and that he sees it as a mutual investment since neither party offers a financial payment to the other.

As they say, time is money

Time is valuable. Energy is valuable. Dedication is valuable.

Time, energy, and dedication cost something. By not paying someone for those things, you’re taking a bite out of their income. This kind of action makes the argument that their time is not worth anything, when time is the most valuable asset we have.

While devaluing the time of someone inexperienced may seem innocuous, it becomes a slippery slope. How do you determine if someone’s time is valuable or not? Is it based on what they’re sacrificing? Is it based on what they’re offering? And if they have no direct experience in the specific skill set they’re honing with you, does that mean they have nothing to offer? How far does this extend? Does it extend to your clients, to volunteers, to entry-level employees, to highly experienced employees who have a lifetime’s worth of experience without tech-specific skills? Where does it stop?

Devaluing anyone’s time is dangerous. Regardless of what you’re an expert in, respecting someone’s time is a fundamental aspect of respecting them as a person. My time is not more valuable than someone who works at a fast food restaurant, or someone who doesn’t know how to operate Google Drive, or someone who has never written copy. While my skills may be in greater demand (and therefore come with a higher hourly rate), my time is not inherently more or less valuable than anyone else’s–and neither is yours.

Even an industry beginner with previous work experience brings value to their team

As I’m currently a project management apprentice with Louder Than Ten (thanks to Zao’s generosity), I immediately applied this to project management as a whole.

While I have experience with focused project management (i.e. on small projects that fall under my scope of work, which typically involves content management, copy and content writing, etc.), I don’t have direct experience with technical project management for an entire development firm. It was a concern of mine walking into this, and I brought that to the Justins (we have not yet trademarked their band name, but give it time) when we had the conversation about the role. In response, Justin said, “I don’t hire for the role; I hire for the person.”

As I’m going through the LTT program, I’m realizing how much I have to learn, but also, how much I do actually know–which is a whole lot more than I thought. It’s not from direct experience, but from skills honed in other settings.


A long time ago, I waited tables, slinging sushi in a small town for tips. That is a tough job, and I learned a lot of things that have followed me into almost every position I’ve had since: time management, softening unwanted news, juggling a lot of different tasks/priorities simultaneously, being predictive about potential problems (and solving them before they arise), and constantly enhancing efficiency to the best of my ability. All of these things are also highly applicable to project management; although the details need refining, I can confidently say that this job I worked ten years ago laid a foundation for what I am learning today and the work I will be doing in the future.

Based on that expert’s words, it seems he would look at someone who waited tables and say, “You’re a career switcher. You have nothing of value to add, so i’m not going to pay you to learn more.” And to that, I say bull$@&%.

Not understanding how different careers can provide transferable skills is extremely short-sighted. It is neither an innovative nor wise way to evaluate people, their value, or what kind of insight they can bring to a position/team. Even “career switchers” have valuable skills that can be applied to new positions. To say that their lack of specific experience means they aren’t worth paying is foolish, and frankly, means missing out on a ton of potentially incredible teammates who simply can’t afford to work for free for nearly a year of their lives.

If you’re hiring right, even someone who needs to be trained on specifics will bring value to your team. Period.

A hierarchical approach to learning misses the point

When you’re taking on an apprentice (or someone learning on the job in a more informal capacity), taking a hierarchical approach (“I know things and you know nothing,” for starters) is a great way to miss out on a huge opportunity.

Any educator worth their salt knows that as they teach, they also learn. Teaching someone not only allows you to develop a deeper understanding of what you know, but it also provides opportunities for you to think differently and expand your own skill set. An ideal educational experience is a symbiotic relationship, where everyone is bringing something to the table as well as taking something away.

This is really what any kind of educator/student or facilitator/participant relationship is all about. Educators benefit from the exchange, too. This is particularly applicable when dealing with adults; they aren’t blobs of clay, ready to be molded to your specifications. They’re humans, with full, adult lives that have led them to this point.

Improving diversity in tech means paying people for their labor–even while they’re learning

Although things have been improving on the diversity front, things are still woefully skewed toward the homogenous.

When class, gender, and race play a role in access to opportunities–education, jobs, comparable pay–it also means that expecting people to act as an apprentice for free ensures that only a specific privileged demographic will be able to access it.

There is a wealth of evidence that shows that diverse teams are smarter, drive innovation, and companies that prioritize it have a lower turnover rate. Supporting the educational efforts and skill development of your employees who may not otherwise have that opportunity is not just a positive, ethical approach to business and a fundamental aspect of treating others with respect; it’s good for your bottom line.

Treating people well is actually a form of pragmatism

A chunk of the WordPress community has clearly already adopted this approach by bringing on people who are learning on the job, and Zao, in particular, has mastered it.

One of the things I love about Zao is how we practically apply our values to the way we do business. We don’t just say that we value excellence, pragmatism, and family; we practice it. Investing in people, rather than simply trying to fill roles, has been a cornerstone of Zao’s growth and success.

What Justin said to me immediately reminded me of another common business adage:

“People don’t quit jobs; they quit bosses.”

Perhaps that expert should take note before his apprentices hear that other people will pay them while they learn and leave him in the dust.

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