Sheet Metal Workers Local 9 logo

The Apprenticeship System

Introduction

Apprenticeship is a time of balancing short term gains against long term advantages. You can make a decision to take lower wages for a year or so in order to gain an interesting job, good salary, and job security. If you make this decision, you know that if you successfully serve as an apprentice, you will gain these benefits. But apprenticeship is not only a benefit for you. It is also a benefit to the industry and the whole of society. That is why apprenticeship has a long and honorable history.

History of Apprenticeship

A skilled craft worker has always been respected. These lines from an old story of King Arthur make this very clear.

"The knife is in the meat, and the drink is in the horn, and there is revelry in Arthur's Hall; and none may enter therein but the son of a King of a privileged country, or a CRAFTSMAN bringing his craft."

A journeyman or master who had his tools and had his skills was worthy to sit with the King. For many centuries, apprenticeship was the only kind of education a working class youth could get. The word "Apprentice" comes from a word that means "to learn". An apprenticeship was an education that could lead to a secure and respected place in life.

Apprentices in the Ancient World

Apprenticeship can be traced back to Babylon, more than four thousand years ago. Hammurabi, a king of Babylon, developed the earliest written laws, called the Code of Hammurabi. Because apprenticeship was so important, it was covered in this code. According to the code, an apprentice was to be treated as an adopted son: "If an artisan take a son for adoption and teach him his handicraft, one may not bring claim for him. If he does not teach him his handicraft, that adopted son may return to his father's house."

The early Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all had systems of apprenticeship. The magnificent pyramids, temples, and coliseums that still stand are evidence that there was an effective method of teaching young workers the skills of the drafts and professions. Imagine how much skill it took to produce these great monuments in the days before there was any power equipment or even steel tools.

The Guilds

For thousands of years, such things as shoes, furniture, household utensils, and other essential items of everyday life were produced by families or clans that specialized in making one of these items. By the twelfth century, these craftsmen began to organize themselves into guilds.

The guilds became very powerful. The right to work at a trade depended upon membership in the proper guild. The guilds were the rough equivalent of today's union. These craft Guilds consisted of apprentices, journeymen, and masters. They set the conditions of apprenticeship, controlled working conditions, and set wages for journeymen.

An apprentice lived with the master who taught a skill. The apprentice was taught the complete skills of the occupation. He lived in the house of the master and was provided with food, clothing, and other basic necessities, but was almost never paid any wages. Sometimes he was taught reading, writing and arithmetic. Generally, at the end of the apprenticeship he was given a new suit of clothes and an agreed upon sum of money. Sometimes the apprentice had to demonstrate the skill that had been learned. The apprentice then became a journeyman.

The Masters

The master is the equivalent of today's contractor. Only the master could contract for work and only the master could hire others to work in the occupation.

An indenture was the document that gave the terms for an apprentice. An indenture agreement was written when an apprentice was bound over to a master to learn the trade. The indenture generally covered three areas -- the period of apprenticeship, the benefits to the apprentice, and the benefits to the employer. It often put real restrictions on the apprentice. (This early indenture was much more strict than the indenture agreement you signed.)

Guild apprenticeship usually lasted at least seven years, until the apprentice was twenty-four. Many apprentices were only ten or twelve years when they began their training, so they might serve as apprentices for as long as fourteen years. Compare that with your apprenticeship!

The apprentice was at the mercy of the master -- and the master might be stingy or might be generous. But in those days when a worker had to struggle to obtain enough food and a place to sleep, the apprentice was at least assured of these basic necessities. In addition, he received the best education available at that time for the working class. It was a real privilege to be indentured as an apprentice. It assured the young worker of a respected and substantial position in life. Not only the crafts that we know today were taught through apprenticeship. The arts and professions such as architecture, sculpture, painting, and medicine were also learned through an apprenticeship.