A fresh look at apprenticeships

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In the middle ages, when very few could read but many hands were needed in specialist crafts, becoming an apprentice was a big turning point in a young person’s life. It meant the chance to learn trade secrets, which would set you in good stead to become a master, own your own workshop, rise above being a feudal serf, and possibly even gain the attention of nobles and the king.

An apprenticeship meant access to the big guilds — like the Armourers and Smiths, Bakers and Tailors — who are still prominent in modern England. In fact, so greatly do they value their status, that the term ‘at sixes and sevens’ to describe a fierce argument refers to whether or not the Furriers or Tailors were the sixth guild to be granted a charter, or the seventh. Guilds managed pensions and medical bills for their members, sorted legal disputes, collected debts from troublesome customers, and served as research and development centres, where masters created new technology. Guilds were the first to offer equal status to skilled women in certain crafts, in a time 1,000 years before the idea of gender equality.

Today, an apprenticeship offers some of those same advantages. Learning is hands-on, on the job, which benefits those who learn better by example than from a book. Master craftspeople work one on one with the young folks they may very well intend to replace them when they retire. During a period of up to seven years, young folks progress while assisting with real jobs in the field — that’s a similar study time to becoming a doctor. It’s something we need as a nation — there are well-publicised shortages in many trades due in part to a lack of apprenticeship programmes late last century.

Best of all, the path from apprentice to skilled master comes with a very high statistical chance of owning one’s own business compared to other means of study. That’s good news for young folks who aspire to be their own boss — and a tribute to the apprenticeship process, which has endured since ancient Egyptian times.


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