June: Your Apprenticeship Moment of Zen

Factory Worker

Industrialization and Its Effect on Apprenticeship

In an earlier blog we spoke about the history of apprenticeship from indentured servitude to the machine age.

We noted that the machine age ushered in a mixed blessing of productivity, new work, work in the cities, as well as the unfortunate use of children as cheap labor. Accidents and general safety were huge issues in factories and in the handling of certain materials- electricity among them.

The wage relationship between apprentice and employer saw benefits in the age of industrialization. Masters could rid their home of “live in apprentices”, apprentices could have freer lives, earn better wages, cycling new money back into the economy. Working hours began to take on a more reasonable, established time frames; another advantage to living outside the Master’s home.

Apprenticeship suffered in the factory settings in the early twentieth century. Employment did not carry with it any agreement of training. The skills taught were specific to task; the learning of new skills was limited. As the division of labor grew in businesses, opportunities for learning anything outside of task actually shrank.

Throughout North America and Europe, it was the industrialized nations that modernized the role and scope of apprentices. Factories, machine shops, and textile industries quickly discerned it was far more efficient to train and retain the people they needed. In order to keep up with the demands of the new modern world in the 1900’s, the apprenticeship structure in manufacturing made sense and cents. By 1910 the leading firms had extensive apprenticeship programs and corporate schools (look at the history of Hershey Chocolate in Pennsylvania; there is still a school there today) Here was the problem they ran into:

“Because of the way modern work conditions transformed work, the initial year of apprenticeship involved costly full-time training, divorced from productive labor. Firms sought to capture these costs during the final year of a three-year indenture, when apprentices produced more than they were paid for. In a period of growing demand for skills, however, apprentices often abrogated their contracts for higher wages elsewhere. This experience taught firms that it was cheaper to poach than to train. But when everybody poached and nobody trained, the global production of skills fell.”faqs.org/childhoodapprentices

Here is where the modern divergence fell: in the U.S. firms more or less dispensed with apprenticeships. The demands for product in the 1920’s could be met by the trained workforce. Businesses decided to look to the public schools and their populations to supply white collar workers. The building trades were among the very few to hold onto and grow true apprenticeships.

Europeans, most notably Germany, went the other way. They embraced the investment in industrial training. Their goal was not to out produce the volume the Americans could do, but to produce higher quality goods and more customized product. Germany expanded their apprenticeships beyond the industrial into highly customized craft products, and commercial training. This approach was so successful, the Germans were able to affect high standards of training, apprenticeship indenture being honored, and demanding public training standards be applied to private firms.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of the apprenticeship system is that it ties learning to real world applications while earning a living wage from an employer in your industry. The public school system in the U.S. is so varied and large that it truly cannot be tasked with preparing people for technical and specific industries. In fact, it often fails to provide us candidates with high math and critical thinking skills.

Americans need to recognize apprentices are not participants in a game show where they do very little, running  errands, participating in contests. Apprenticeship has been dumbed down in the eyes of Americans; it’s true story is not being shared with the masses.

Apprenticeship should be poised to make a strong come back in our country. Apprenticeship is an equal opportunity education with a great return on investment.

Apprentices work. American business….are you listening?

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