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Published: March 8, 2011


A formal vocational training program in which students learn the skills for a particular trade on the job—usually under the tutelage of a master craftsman.
Apprenticeships date back to the 13th-century European guilds, in which master craftsmen agreed contractually to train young men in their crafts, much as they might their own sons. Apprenticeships generally lasted seven years, during which the master provided his apprentices with room, board, clothing and tools. In exchange, apprentices provided labor, starting with menial tasks at first, but gradually becoming more valuable as their skills improved.
The 19th-century industrial revolution and the 20th-century technological revolution changed the complexion of apprenticeships, as the practice of even the simplest crafts demanded an ever expanding base of academic knowledge. Moreover, the demand for more skilled workers made it impossible for individual craftsmen to train as many workers as the market needed. Schools and colleges began filling the gap by providing basic apprenticeship training, along with needed academic skills. The post–Civil War years saw the HAMPTON INSTITUTE, the TUSKEGEE INSTITUTE and similar institutions providing a combined academic-vocational education for former slaves, while the LAND-GRANT COLLEGES did the same for whites. Graduates still entered the workplace as apprentices, but they came with enough basic skills to become master craftsmen after only one to five years of on-thejob apprenticeships.
The National Apprenticeship Act of 1937 gave the U.S. Labor Department responsibility for setting standards for apprenticeship programs in companies involved in interstate commerce, and the department maintains a Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training in every state. Most states have comparable regulatory laws and agencies. Today’s typical apprenticeship programs require a high school diploma and a solid command of basic academics. Most programs require about 2,000 hours of supervised, on-the-job training plus related instruction either in classrooms, by correspondence or self-study. There are more than 800 types of apprenticeship programs officially approved by the U.S. Labor Department and the 50 states—most of them under joint sponsorship of unions and industry.
Because of a shortage of apprenticeship programs and rampant nepotism in admission policies, fewer than 2% of American high school graduates—less than 1,000—are enrolled in such programs, most of them sons and daughters of union members. Many trades offer no programs at all, and fewer than 20% of the 300,000 participants in existing programs are under 23 years old. In contrast, Germany, which has the most sophisticated apprenticeship system in the world, boasts nearly 2 million participants. Run by the Federal Labor Agency, the German system is a cooperative education program that puts about two-thirds of all students into vocational schools after their sophomore year of high school. A model for the growing cooperative vocational education programs in the United States, the German apprenticeship system combines the last two years of vocational high school with three years of on-the-job apprenticeships in virtually every German company. German industry spends an average of about $8,500 a year per apprentice. The Federal Labor Agency’s economists predict which industries are most likely to grow each year and guides apprentices accordingly. In contrast, most American companies prefer spending funds to train and retrain current workers and reserve apprenticeships for more mature applicants. More than three-fourths of American apprentices are 23 years and older.
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