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Updated on October 4, 2009

An apprentice is a person who learns a craft or trade under the supervision of a skilled worker. An apprenticeship is the procedure by which young persons acquire the skills necessary to become proficient in a trade, craft, art, or profession under the tutelage of a master practitioner. The apprenticeship system benefits three groups:

  1. Young persons who acquire skills that provide them financial and psychological security as trained craftsmen.
  2. The employer or master who receives productive work from apprentices during their training.
  3. Society at large, which receives continuing supplies of skilled labor and quality goods.

Modern apprenticeships are arranged by contracts signed by the employer; by a joint management and labor committee, if one exists; and by the apprentice or his parents or guardian. National trade committees, representing both management and labor establish standards and policies for the guidance of their local groups.

The apprenticeship system operates in about 400 skilled occupations in 90 trades. The beginning age for most apprentices is between 16 and 24. The apprenticeship contract provides for on-the-job training and classroom instruction for two or more years, and it clearly states the hours, wages, and working conditions that are to apply during the period of apprenticeship.

Some form of apprenticeship has existed from earliest times, often as a family tradition. The apprenticeship system was highly formalized by the guilds of the early Middle Ages. The names of typical apprenticeable trades of the Middle Ages are preserved in surnames that are still common: Goldsmith, Blacksmith, Carpenter, Shoemaker, Taylor, Boatwright, and Weaver.

Although apprenticeship declined with the rise of the factory system during the 19th century, in recent times there has been a marked revival of apprenticeship programs in many advanced industrial nations and developing nations. Such programs are sponsored by governments, trade unions, and industrial employers.

Baker and his apprentice
Baker and his apprentice

History of Apprenticeships

Apprenticeship systems probably have been operated since shortly after man began to engage in cooperative production effort. Apprenticeship was promoted, protected, and regulated by law in ancient states, as it is today. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi provided that artisans teach their handicrafts to youths whom they adopted as "sons" to assist them in work. Records from Greece in the 5th century B.C. contain contracts that paid high premiums to those providing apprentice sculptors and painters. There is evidence that ancient Egypt and Rome also had apprenticeship systems.

In the domestic apprenticeship system, which prevailed from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution, an apprentice began his training at 12 or 13 years of age under the terms of a contract called an indenture. The indenture derived its name from the fact that duplicate copies were indented, or notched, by being torn across the top, to provide perfect identification when the pieces were matched. Signed by the master and by the apprentice's parents or guardian, the indenture bound the apprentice strictly to the service and care of his master for a certain number of years. In return the apprentice was to receive food, lodging, clothing, instruction, and sometimes a terminal payment, but no wages. When the terms of the contract were fulfilled, the apprentice became a journeyman. In time he might became a master, after he had produced an approved sample of his work, called a masterpiece. Many musicians, painters, and sculptors, as well as artisans, were trained under this system.

In England the guilds controlled apprenticeship through most of the 12th and 13th centuries. Parliamentary statutes of 1388, 1405, and 1437 sought to break down the excessive barriers to entrance to the trades established by the guilds for their own monopoly profits. The Elizabethan Statute of Artificers of 1563 established a system of statutory apprenticeship in England. Parliament repealed the Elizabethan act in 1814, inaugurating the modern period of voluntary apprenticeship contracts.

The domestic apprenticeship system was brought to colonial America by European craftsmen. Famous Americans who learned their skills in this way were Paul Revere, a silversmith, Benjamin Franklin, a printer, and Mark Twain, a printer and river pilot.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the adoption of laws governing public education, the system was gradually replaced by agreements under which an apprentice received wages, instead of board, lodging, and clothing, and under which he enjoyed considerably more freedom. Apprenticeship systems that were closer to the modern form appeared toward the end of the 19th century. However, it was not until the 1930s that all interested groups combined their efforts to establish a uniform national apprenticeship program.


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    • profile image

      yogirl 8 years ago

      know anything else about goldsmith apprenticeships?

    • GNelson profile image

      GNelson 8 years ago from Florida

      Apprenticeships have served us well. We should give high school kids this option. Not everyone goes to college. They could earn some money and a trade.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 8 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Thought provoking article. NN summed it up well.

    • darkside profile image

      Glen 8 years ago from Australia

      In Australia while it never really went away there has been a recent big swing back to apprenticeships and also traineeships. Using the same format for training people in relatively newer professional areas such as hospitality, retail, management, IT.

    • profile image

      Nancy's Niche 8 years ago

      I think the idea of apprentice programs should be applicable in today’s working environment. Maybe quality work would once again surface. The other side to this, the greed of corporations drives down the quality of their products. They would rather outsource then pay a decent wage for quality.

    • dusanotes profile image

      dusanotes 8 years ago from Windermere, FL

      Very good article, darkside. My father would not have had much of a lifestyle had it not been for the machinist apprenticeship he entered into when he was 19 or 20. He was married and had three children, working for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, then went on from that and became a master mechanic at the Union Pacific RR and round house foreman. They certainly helped millions grab onto a little of that American Dream and increase their potential earnings and enjoyment of life. Thanks, Don White

    • darkside profile image

      Glen 8 years ago from Australia

      Having done an apprenticeship as a Fitter Machinist (aka fitter & turner) I worked in a factory that had toolmakers. Damn fine tradesmen... ummmm, tradespeople :D

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 8 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      The first woman was accepted into the General Motors-UAW apprentice program in 1967 at GM's AC Spark Plug plant in Flint, Michigan. The woman successfully completed a 4-year toolmaker apprentice program consisting of classroom instruction and on-the-job training assignments. The plant, once employing 12,000 was closed several years ago due to competition from off shore and non-union companies.