Why We Can’t Revive the Apprenticeship System Yet

When intelligent people discuss the problems with the higher education system in the Western world – namely that it costs too much and fails to prepare most of its students and graduates for fulfilling lives – the suggestion to revive the apprenticeship system which existed in bygone times often comes up.

Billionaires like Nassim Taleb and Peter Thiel have both advocated something like a return to the apprenticeship system which was ubiquitous up until the early modern era. These suggestions are also often echoed by bloggers and others who know vaguely about what they want, but aren’t quite clear on what the old apprenticeship system was and why it ultimately faded.

This article will attempt to clear out some of the confusion and obfuscation around the issue.

One company that attempted to revive the apprenticeship concept for high tech companies just shut down earlier this month. In the closing letter, the founders cited some failed matches and high expenses for managing the relationships between ‘apprentices’ and mentors. Their ambition was to create a national apprenticeship network, but the model couldn’t scale.

Some states have also attempted to create larger apprenticeship programs outside the construction trades, where they are still prevalent (albeit in a different way than was traditional).

Despite all these well-intentioned efforts, many if not most of them are likely to fail. To understand why, we have to retrace the history of why compulsory education and labor reforms displaced the old apprenticeship model.

Apprentices were bonded to their masters

Parents who lacked land to give to their sons or means to secure them some other income would often turn to apprenticeship to provide them with a secure future. As soon as they were physically capable of adult labor, they would be eligible for an apprenticeship contract. These contracts would often last for six years or longer.

And they were binding. Young apprentices who found the work obnoxious or who disliked the treatment that he received at the hands of his master who escaped could be caught and returned – much the same as a chattel slave could be.

Ben Franklin famously escaped his apprenticeship to his brother before completing it and set up his own shop. This sort of behavior was more feasible in America where formal guilds were not as well established as they were in Europe.

Further, poor children with no visible means of support could be seized and placed into the employ of a master as an apprentice. Rather than going on welfare rolls, the “poor laws” obligated youths to long, arduous, and often unpaid labor while they lived under their master’s roof.

Instinctively, in the modern era, we tend to rebel against this impingement on individual liberties. Many people today associate indentures and apprenticeships with slavery.

There are also political concerns related to democracy – a man who had known nothing but the workshop for all of his adult life would necessarily lack the liberal education that someone who had been schooled would have. Yet they would both have the same vote. In order to justify the wisdom of universal suffrage, universal education had to be instituted in order to impart enough knowledge for everyone to wisely exercise those votes.

In the industrial era, as larger firms developed, it became more common for apprentices to work for corporations rather than individual masters. The periods of training also began to shorten relative to what was common in older periods.

If you ever find yourself wondering why older homes are so much more beautiful and ornate than homes built after the New Deal, one of the reasons why is because the people who constructed it came from a culture that valued skilled labor and developed formal institutions that cultivated it.

Why did corporations and craftsmen bear the expense of training future laborers in the past, while they tend to be unwilling to do so now?

The reason why is because they could be assured that they would derive future exclusive value from that training. Employers in the contemporary free labor economy rightly fear that their investment in training will be unrecoverable  should that laborer find another job not too long after completing their training.

Compulsory education made apprenticeships less feasible

Perhaps the largest change in the way that Americans prepared young people for a lifetime of work came with the spread of compulsory education laws that spread from state to state beginning in the mid-19th century. Elementary school became mandatory by the early 20th century, and high school attendance became common by the end of World War II.

Youths who would be starting their professional training at 12 or 13 years old in previous eras were instead halfway through a time-consuming abstract education in the arts and sciences that would last until they turned 18. This was compounded through the century as the education complex continued to expand and demand more and more years from its students.

Child labor laws which propagated throughout the Progressive era also disrupted the former working lives that adolescents were compelled to live. The teenager – the youth with a lot of free time and few work obligations – is more the consequence of compulsory education than a life stage that has always existed across all societies and time periods.

The National Apprenticeship Act brought everything under Federal control

The National Apprenticeship Act (also called the Fitzgerald Act) of 1937 brought all apprenticeship programs under Federal regulation. This added to the expense of compliance with regulation and made it much more challenging to set up and run apprenticeship programs. As far as the government is concerned, it’s easier to expand spending on education than it is to encourage apprenticeships.

The political impetus for education – it enables the state to mold the thinking of future voters – also makes it more attractive than apprenticeship programs which are just going to train people into being more lucrative sources of tax revenue.

Because of this regulatory apparatus, it makes it risky and impossible to replicate the old apprenticeship system. It has to work within a larger set of legal restrictions and crowding-out effects than our ancestors ever had to deal with.

This is one of the reasons that despite interest in reviving apprenticeship programs in the US, there is little speech about deregulating apprenticeship programs.

The reluctance to do this has ideological and political roots: scaling back on the ambitions of compulsory education also means admitting that universal suffrage is an ill-starred doctrine.

There are also some spiritual reasons as to why it’ll be challenging for modern Americans to pursue this sort of reform. Apprenticeships necessarily put skilled workers in positions of authority over other workers. Their capabilities of those authorities are more important than their credentials. This must undermine the authority of educated managers, teachers, and professors. Those bureaucrats are whom the modern state relies upon to enforce its strictures.

Some closing words on freedom, education, and apprenticeship

The new system of free labor tends to be portrayed as representing an advance in individual liberty. This viewpoint tends to be shared even among ardent critics of the New Deal regulatory regime.

Viewed from a different perspective, all that we did was switch from one form of human bondage to another. Apprentices might have been unfree, but they were at least working in something that was in their long term interests – and often better than the alternatives at the time. Schooling provides difficult-to-define practical benefits – they are more concerned with molding citizens than they are with imparting practical skills.

Students today aren’t free, either. Their parents will be fined or imprisoned if their children go truant. Rather than being bound to a workplace, they’re bound to a government school until they turn 18. And ever-increasingly, they must then attend a university until 21 or graduate school until much older before finding suitable employment.

Rather than employers bearing most of the costs of training, instead the state taxes parents to pay for expensive educations that are unlikely to prepare children for the working world – and are quite likely to introduce those children to the tangle of pathologies dramatized in every movie about high school ever made.

Yes, masters and their wives often whipped and otherwise abused their apprentices. But bullies in schools deliver beatings and humiliations just the same. Such is the way of arbitrary authority. When schoolmasters could issue corporal punishment, violence among children was less of an issue. When they were forbidden from corporal punishment, the children took over in the administration of random violence – often without much of a moral purpose behind it.

Because correcting the errors of the great reformers requires violating countless taboos, those corrections are likely to be furtive, halting, and at small scale. It’s much easier for families and individual companies to pursue small initiatives than it is to attempt to reform the entire system at once. There are too many established interests – and more importantly, powerful ideological blinders – that will impede any serious attempts to enact broad reforms.

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  1. It’s fairly common knowledge that there will be a huge upcoming deficit of workers in the skilled trades as the Baby Boom generation retires. A large percentage of skilled tradesmen retired or dropped out or went on disability after the last housing boom crash, and even more will be lost in the coming years. This is, of course, assuming robots aren’t taking all the jobs within 10 years, and that I’m talking about large swaths of the country where Mexicans have yet to take over as the skilled laboring class.

    As you state, the disincentives and propaganda against entering even “apprenticeship-ish” programs are huge.

    An illustration: I currently work in municipal management. To manage a water distribution system or a wastewater treatment system, an operator needs to have — at a minimum — three years of on-the-job training for basic certification. This means three years of low paid, long hour, on-call “general labor” status before qualifying to take the certified operator test. Within the next 10 years, over 50% of all certified operators for both wastewater and water will retire nationwide.

    There is no program to replace them. The young men who would fill these roles in the past — who would put in 3 years of low pay hard work for a guaranteed municipal job — are now either 1) shuffled off to state university to drink too much, flounder in a quasi-academic environment, and either drop out full of debt or graduate thinking they are “too professional” to treat people’s shit, or 2) too demotivated by videogames, internet porn, pot, or even worse, heroin and meth, to ever get a job in the first place.

    Municipalities are disinclined to raise the “general labor” pay, knowing that when the individual becomes a certified operator, they can take their certification anywhere for better pay.

    When the retirement wave hits, even 90-IQ basic system operators with their pieces of paper are going to be able to command relatively high salaries, and be snapped up by major treatment systems, leaving small and rural municipalities either 1) unable to afford a certified operator, or 2) simply unable to find one in the first place.

    If you think we’re facing an infrastructure crisis, wait until you find out about the crisis in men trained and able to maintain and repair that infrastructure.

    1. Thanks for the detailed response. I’ve appreciated your readership and comments both here and on my site over the last couple years.

      Is there any other material you can send me to as it relates to the labor shortages faced by sewer and water treatment programs? I’d also like to ask you a few questions — you can email me by the contact form on my site at henrydampier.com/contact/.

      1. Message sent, happy to answer any questions that I am able to answer.

    2. I was referring to areas where immigration has completely distorted the labor pool — i.e., California — where existing companies or businesses that are still “apprentice-ish” — construction, etc. — can’t afford NOT to hire immigrants, especially when the bulk of the work is throwing up shitty buildings. The immigrants price out the kids who would have typically started at the bottom in those kind of businesses and worked their way up to “skilled”. My impression is that most of the immigrant labor stays at the baseline and never moves up to “skilled” as the traditional working class might have.

      Many areas of the interior of the country are not yet like that, not completely. That being said, you’ll still find most skilled trades businesses set up one of two ways: a Boomer skilled tradesman at the top, and a bunch of late-teen early-twenty “helpers” who are obviously never going to put the work in needed to become skilled.

      I simply don’t see many tradesmen — especially skilled tradesmen — in the 25-50 age range. I don’t know what happened to them. Are they managing big box stores?

      1. Many are not in the labor force at all: https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/LNS11300001

    3. I suppose employers of such men will have to start paying more than they were previously accustomed to doing.

      You know, it would be pretty ironic if low-skill, low-intelligence mass immigration actually ended up driving up labor costs.

      1. Don’t forget it is still a supply & demand game. My experience with developing countries is they have “their” way of doing things which is not necessarily acceptable in America. Many of these people will have to be trained in any case, or retrained.

  2. The reintroduction of the bond is a pretty big ticket item that would have repercussions across society.

    Interestingly, the Armed Forces seem to be able to construct similar terms. Ours offers training on a +1 basis; i.e. train for 4 years, serve 5 afterwards before you can leave. So the construct remains, if not the name.

    Really odd that this is unavailable for apprenticeships under the current scheme. Our trades are covered by apprenticeships , but typically starting at the end of Grade 10 rather than the earlier commencement common historically.

    My wife and I have pondered the notion of gapping schooling for those not headed to academic paths – say do trade from end of Grade 8, complete a finishing course after completing Trade.

    Some skills its easier to learn as an adult; for some people there isn’t much benefit to spending that intervening period in school. And if you are bonded as an apprentice, well maybe some of those things don’t need to be learned until later anyway.

    Design for human labour input into automated systems. To ponder.

    1. In the military, people are also trained depending on how long they’re obligated to remain in service. This also opens up a can of worms about the proper obligations of citizens and subjects. If citizens have free exit, the sovereign might not have sufficient incentive to invest in their welfare. But that isn’t the only factor at play, obviously.

      1. Free exit usually exists in many states, not just yours. Then, as the Chinese Mencius said, “If the king doesn’t blame [bad] harvest, [but instead invests in his subjects’ welfare] people from all over will come to his kingdom.”(王無罪歳、則天下之民至焉)

  3. And Damper does it again, delivering a truly excellent article that was highly informative without much ‘waffle’.

    “In order to justify the wisdom of universal suffrage, universal education had to be instituted in order to impart enough knowledge for everyone to wisely exercise those votes.”

    Had to laugh at this thinking about the ‘gibsmedat’ generation who wouldn’t know how to wisely exercise a vote if it was for their own execution. The public education model is so absurd, it is a wonder how it has caught on around the world. Instead of having a sectorized workforce who will train in given fields early without wasting time on things they don’t need to know, everyone must have a “well-rounded” education for the interest of the civil society. We had a civil society prior to public education. Where did that come from? Oh, yeah, the church, but we can’t have any of that can we. Public schools are essentially cruddy seminaries for propogating overt and covert dogmas of the Cult of Progress.

    I demand guilds, damn it. Guilds a’ plenty!

  4. This is, of course, all predicated on us ceasing to destroy the working class – sending half their jobs to China and giving the other half to illegal Mexican scabs. It is also predicated on us altering the welfare system so that having a working-class job is clearly a better deal than getting on the dole and playing Xbox all day. Until we do something about those problems, there’s no point in reviving apprenticeship.

    And you’re certainly right about the current system being unfree. Mandatory kiddie jail for twelve years, and then say hello to student loan debt slavery. The average college student will finally pay that off and be able to afford to form a family right about the time their ovaries have dried up and they’re physically incapable of having children anymore. But at least there are still cats they can adopt! Yay!

    1. The welfare system distorts in unexpected ways, well beyond the simple “I can get more money for not working than by starting out at a shitty job.”

      The traditional working-class young man is essentially priced out of rental housing in many markets because apartment managers and landlords can get a much better deal — guaranteed steady checks, higher rental $$ — by taking advantage of Section 8 vouchers or low-income senior housing vouchers.

      This can be especially pernicious in rural areas. The amount the government will kick in for low income senior / section 8 rental money is usually determined on a regional basis which includes a city, which skews the numbers higher. Rural/small town apartment complexes can get higher rents from section 8 with the skewed pricing than what the actual local market can afford.

      It’s damn tough out there for a dumb, decent hard worker to try and pull himself up by the bootstraps in any traditional way, and avoid the pitfall temptations of the welfare state.

  5. You could say that everyone has been made an apprentice of the State.

  6. Agreed. As a matter of fact adolescence is not even existent back then. What we now consider as teens are considered adults with all the rights and responsibilities thereof:

    Extended childhood seems quite a recent invention in the last few centuries.

  7. I think the definition of “apprenticeship” is too narrow, too local. I am using a different computer so I don’t have the links, but the one path I always mention is one of a MOOC, massive online learning course path.

    I show a specific math course for software developed by Princeton that veers from the algebra, calculus, diff eq path and goes straight after math that pertains to software algorithms, more matrix and vector math, and graph theory. This math course is a pre-req for a Stanford Software algorithms class which teaches most efficient processing paths for things that are to be millions of times during an execution run, then a Machine Learning course that teaches statistics like Bayes. None of these are easy undertakings by any means.

    But each comes with registration and verification mechanisms that actually could go further to showing an employer or subsequent “apprenticeship” program that this individual did get the preparation and also the documentation to show how he did. The syllabus of the course, Projects, homeworks, tests etc are available for viewing given proper authorization.

    In this Machine Learning path, as well as lots of software paths, Apprenticeship is avaiable via Open Source projects. And mentoring is on a “broader” scale. To give an example Henry Dampier is sort of a mentor to me in NeoReacton and I have been an apprentice for the past couple of years. I have some other teachers and mentors. But the thrust of the learning has been on me. I saw references to some Moldbug guy so I read him. And many other sources were picked up the same way, through direct recommendation or indirectly via reference to the source.

    On a less high techish note, I looked into buying and milling out AR 15 lowers after reading a lot of Anonymous Conversative posts about the apocalypse coming tomorrow. I found ton of you tube videos showing exactly how to mill not only lowers, but specific ones from various makers and use the various jigs they supplied.

    I was wondering about making Le Corbusier LC2 and LC3 furniture. It has a bent and welded stainless steel frame made of solid chromed rods. There was plenty of videos on using ARC welders and “stick” or “TIG” welding methods. Some from skilled welders just for the heck of it; some were from vendors that sold various welding supplies. You could watch and then go out in your garage and practice the various techniques. Eventually to get a job you have to get through some actual certification to prove to the hiring entity that you can weld at least the thing they are hiring you to weld.

    The better question about “what sort of thing is available on videos or in the internet?” is “What is not?” I have found anything from cooking bread in traditional latin american brick oven, a “lleno del fuego”, to replacing a particular model laptop display, to solving and using Naive Bayes in Hadoop.

    The reality of getting any technical job, particularly in software, is you will go through an interview process where there is some sort of Oral Exam and possibly a written one. I believe that if someone were to follow the MOOC path I detailed above, then participated in some contests at a site like Kaggle.com you could go out an interview for a job in Data Science or Machine Learning. I would have no problem constructing a resume that said Princeton, Stanford because that was where I studied. Yes, you would have to qualify it when the hiring company spoke to you, but there is actual documentation available that you did the work and show the topics covered.

    So I think the stuff is all there for “apprentice based training” and maybe it is better if it is mostly self driven, mostly ad hoc, tailored to each person. In the end, most of these jobs are “meritocratic”; the doing is everything, certification is far less important.

    1. There are gunsmith correspondence courses out there also. The MOOC model is differentiating and in some cases coming closer to the industrial model of apprenticeship with its shorter training times and more focused natures.

      There are also ‘nanodegrees’ and certificates developing — but the track record of certificate programs is very mixed, as you mention.

  8. Are you aware that there are parts of the world where modern apprenticeships are well and alive, and doing just fine? For example Germany, or to an even higher degree Switzerland. Instead of looking back a few centuries and shuddering at the thought, you could just look a little bit over the edge of your country and discover quite a successful system 😉
    No, it’s not necessary to “bond” someone to a master and bind them in a guild for life. A simple 3 or 4 year contract with some obligations and a lot of rights and protections is all it needs. Usually the system involves sending the apprentice to school for 1 or 2 days per week, and working supervised for the other days.

    1. It’s often cited as an example in the US. It probably deserves a more detailed examination. With the movements to raise the minimum wage in both countries, I would expect both countries to converge on the unhappy situation in the US.

      It is worth some closer examination, though. The US has particular regulations which make it harder to run such programs, and it tends to be impossible to repeal the laws.

  9. With the thoughts you'd be thinkin October 30, 2015 at 5:41 am

    I guess another issue is that for young men, due the increasing education of women and female reluctance to marry down results in a elligble partner gap for men in blue collar employment.

    1. This is the crisis on the horizon, though with all the other collective shitstorms, I don’t know if we’re actually going to witness its effects.

  10. Ezra Pound's Ghost October 30, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    The author may find the following works of Arthur Penty of particular interest: A Gildsman Interpretation of History, The Gauntlet: A Challenge to the Myth of Progress, The Restoration of the Gild System, Post-Industrialism, Gilds and Social Crisis, Old Worlds For New, and Guilds Trade and Agriculture. I believe that all of these titles are in the public domain at this point and also available as inexpensive print-on-demand editions via amazon.

    1. Noted. Thank you.

  11. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm has an Internship/Apprentice program for his farming operation that might actually be a workable model. He discusses it in-depth in his book “Fields of Farmers”.

  12. I find all of this reasoning ridiculous.

    In fact I stopped reading several of them. These are all reasons why someone isn’t being an apprentice. In your home work you missed the most important thing, why would someone be an apprentice? The reason you missed it, is because it’s not there, it’s not written.

    But it’s exceedingly as simple as the fact that when I ask the question you wonder what exactly would be the incentive. Obviously we know that with some hard work and time you become more valuable. But how valuable? And how valuable are you during the process? The reality is not enough for anyone to give a fuck. Young people are happier bouncing around jobs for the hopes that they’ll come across something that allows them to join the most modest of income capability.

    Let’s take a look. When I say modest of income capability that includes an ability to buy a house with up to two extra bedroom, and the ability to remodel it at some point if not on purchase, with real crafts people replacing the utter bullshit of fake windows, wood, fire-causing sockets, etc, with real things. It means that it wouldn’t be unfeasible for them to pay people in their own country for their shoes and apparel. For that matter their furniture as well. It doesn’t have to be out of this world, but if you’re not aware this stuff costs more than people can bare at damn near any job that requires an apprenticeship. In order to accomplish this absolutely modest expenditure of cash, you need to make probably double what a plumber makes, and potentially more. Also you have to consider that in order to buy real food and insurance you need money too.

    So, again, why would I want to apprentice a carpenter at a child’s wage of $12/hr that won’t even allow me to live in my own apartment for three years? Because I’m expecting a fat reward of a meager $25/hr with no retirement or insurance? Because I wouldn’t even be able to afford to pay someone who’s also a carpenter to build some new stairs on front entrance way? The best I can do is fill my life with cheap shit that goes to the dump before and after I die, at the cost of exploiting people around the world?

    How can anyone be surprised that it’s hard to fill skilled labor, when the abysmally pathetic shit wages are set by old people yet to die, all because they collected wealth prior to the state we’re now in. For example in the 70’s and 80’s it wasn’t unreasonable to purchase made in the USA clothing. Now a button up shirt isn’t unreasonably priced at $230 because the people who made it are paid a meager $20 something an hour (who can’t afford it). Think about this, people bought houses that were 3x their yearly income, and cars where 1/3 of their yearly income in the early 70’s (not even 1/2 would get you a fancy car). Now to buy a new car it’s anywhere 2/3 to 2x, with wages on apprentice-able jobs. The median new house price today is $270,200, with an expected earnings of the median income at $44,000 (which includes apprenticeshable typical wages), that’s 6x the income compared to 3x for a house.

    So here’s another question, why wouldn’t someone spend all their time bouncing around looking for a way out of the bullshit poor house of wasteful non-appreciable everything that leaves them totally screwed if anything ever goes wrong unexpectedly; and if they’re lucky maybe able to afford a nursing home when they’re retired? The reality is they’ll be poor today and poor tomorrow most likely either way engaging in an apprentice type field at any time. Experience of any sort is just as likely to land them a very meager $20/hr something either way. However the apprentice type jobs often require tools that cost as much as a car, or more, too.

    A note about these small municipals, they’re filled with jackasses that don’t need to buy new tools, have their houses paid for, etc… that offer very low rates which stifles the economy. The people with jobs that are sourcing income from elsewhere don’t request more, don’t expect more, because some undercutting prick makes their life livable. People in these areas think everything is expensive because they’ve screwed their own economy, and the propagate dependency on disposable purchasing for every facet of their life. Where do you think pictures of people at Wal-Mart come from?

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