In a formal sense, apprenticeship is a contractual agreement between an expert practitioner of a trade, art, or profession and a novice in which, for a fixed period of time, the latter exchanges labor for training. Widely associated with the crafts, apprenticeship traces its origins in the West to the household economies of medieval Europe.

Origins and Practice

Until the separation of work from home that began in Europe and North America around 1800, households were also sites of production and reproduction. Since most families needed their children to contribute to their own support, the young nearly always worked alongside their parents in the home and on the land. In the process, they acquired their parents' vocational skills, learned responsibility, and internalized the values of their society. The practice of apprenticeship extended this family-centered model of work and learning to households not necessarily related by blood. It transferred children or adolescents from natal households to interim, external ones for a set period of time–typically four to seven years.

Throughout the early modern period, two distinct types of apprenticeship coexisted side by side. The first, a predominately instructional form, originated in the guilds of the Middle Ages. Practiced by prosperous merchants, professionals, and artisans, it placed sons in the households of prominent counterparts. Since guild oversight and the influence of parents protected the interests of the young, these apprenticeships generally resulted in genuine training. They were especially useful to large families, which sought to diversify the activities of their sons.

In places where guilds were strong, they exercised strict oversight over training. This permitted them to maintain prices by restricting entry into the trades. Good training mattered too, for it diminished guild exposure to competition from less skilled, nonsanctioned producers. When training became too restrictive, however, government officials and powerful consumers worked to weaken guild authority.

At the opposite end of the social spectrum, apprenticeship took a predominately economic form. Modest artisans and small landholders apprenticed out their children primarily for financial reasons. These groups generally lacked the capacity, due to limited land or capital, to employ the labor of all their children productively. Thus, they contracted out their "surplus labor" to families typically without children or with grown ones. Since food, shelter, and heat consumed most of most families' incomes, shifting older children to other households brought meaningful economic relief.

In turn, apprentices provided masters with needed labor at a marginal cost. In this context, however, training was a by-product of work, not the primary object of the exchange. Although masters promised to instruct their charges in a trade, they had an economic incentive to maximize work and skimp on training. Further, they often withheld crucial trade secrets from apprentices in order to prevent future competition. In the absence of guild regulation or influential parents, apprentice exploitation was widespread.

Neither form of apprenticeship was universal, however. Young women were only occasionally indentured to learn a trade, although they frequently served in extrafamilial households to acquire the so-called domestic arts and relieve their families of extra mouths to feed. In agricultural regions where primogeniture was practiced, the eldest son rarely left the household he was destined to inherit. Further, in areas where families typically pooled their labor, as in cottage industries or viniculture, apprenticeship outside the family household was uncommon, since parents could productively employ the labor of all their children.

Despite its variety (all manner of intermediate forms existed) apprenticeships shared several characteristics. First, both economic and educational forces were always at work, though the relative importance of each varied greatly. Further, whatever the context, apprentices acquired knowledge and skill inductively through work. Much like children who acquire language without formal study, apprentices learned through observation, imitation, practice, and interaction with experienced practitioners. Finally, all apprentices learned more than practical skills and the meaning of hard work; they also acquired their community's norms of moral and professional behavior. As teacher and role model, the master served a public function–one in which the community as a whole had a vested interest. Within individual households and shops, however, private interests always mediated this public function. As these grew more legitimate and openly pursued, the practice of apprenticeship shed its public purpose, metamorphosing into a private contract.

Modern Development

Apprenticeship experienced a steep, and apparently permanent, decline in the wake of industrialization. Insofar as it functioned as an economic exchange, its transformation into a wage relationship had several benefits. Wages greatly enhanced the freedom of the young, permitting them to limit their hours of work, bring an end to onerous household chores, escape the master's household and round-the-clock surveillance, and change employers freely. They also permitted poorer families to keep their older children at home by pooling incomes. Masters, too, were often happy to rid their homes of unruly and unreliable adolescents. Moreover, wage relations allowed them to hire and fire young workers as the need arose. However, since employment relations implied no training, employers had no obligation to instruct the young beyond what was required to perform the work at hand. Learning continued as a by-product of work, but as the division of labor grew within centralized factories, the scope of learning shrank.

It is easy to overstate the decline of apprenticeship, however. In rural areas it lingered on well into the 1900s. More significantly, firms throughout the industrializing regions of Europe and North America began to experiment with modern forms of apprenticeship after 1880. As workforce composition shifted from the low-skill textile, leatherworking, and needle trades to metals production, machine building, and metalworking, apprenticeships grew sharply. Employers in the most dynamic and technologically sophisticated sectors of the economy discovered that in-house training offered the only way to provide skilled labor in a period of breakneck expansion. By 1910 nearly all of the world's leading firms had established expensive apprenticeship programs, often accompanied by corporation schools. Few firms captured returns on these training investments, however.

Because of the way modern work conditions transformed work, the initial year of apprenticeship involved costly full-time training, divorced from productive labor. Firms sought to capture these costs during the final year of a three-year indenture, when apprentices produced more than they were paid for. In a period of growing demand for skills, however, apprentices often abrogated their contracts for higher wages elsewhere. This experience taught firms that it was cheaper to poach than to train. But when everybody poached and nobody trained, the global production of skills fell.

Two distinct responses to this quandary emerged. The first, pursued most systematically by U.S. firms, dispensed with apprenticeship. Rapid productivity gains associated with mass production in the 1920s permitted output to expand without a corresponding growth in the labor force. As average job tenure grew and the ratio of green to experienced workers declined, firms found it possible to dispense with preservice training and make do with on-the-job learning. Further contributing to this informal training regime, elaborate divisions of labor, narrow job definitions, and job ladders permitted a stepwise acquisition of experience and skill. Finally, U.S. firms turned decisively to high schools and colleges after 1920 for the recruitment of their white-collar personnel. Thus, apprenticeship survived primarily in the building trades, the one sector of the U.S. economy in which mass production strategies have limited application and unions have remained strong enough to regulate training.

The second strategy, typified by Germany, involved the collective regulation of apprenticeship, a solution built upon a social partnership between organized groups of employers and workers. Germans found it difficult to adopt American mass production strategies in the face of American competition, especially since their historic strength was in the production of custom-made industrial equipment and high-quality consumer goods. Moreover, the importance and modernization of Germany's crafts between 1890 and 1913 made the transition to highly regulated, instructional forms of craft, industrial, and commercial apprenticeship easier.

Gradually, Germany built an elaborate system of vocational training, testing, and certification that forced apprentices to honor their contracts and imposed public training standards on private training firms. In effect, the practice of apprenticeship professionalized most German occupations, while also providing an appealing educational alternative to full-time schooling for two out of every three Germans.

The great advantage of apprenticeship as an instructional device derives from the way it ties learning to real-world applications, imbuing the process with intrinsic motivation and rewards. In view of the general disaffection throughout the industrialized world with the shortcomings and inequities of school-based educational regimes, government officials, employers' organizations, and unions have developed a renewed interest in apprenticeship. Nowhere has this been greater than in Europe, where nearly all the major European countries (e.g., Germany, Austria, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom) have active vocational programs in which apprenticeship plays a central part. Americans, in contrast, generally consider vocational education to be second class and unworthy of a democratic society. Arguably, this has had more to do with how vocational programs evolved in the United States than with their intrinsic merits. Where apprenticeship programs have been well regulated, rigorous, and led to good jobs, they have proven popular, motivated students to learn, and enhanced social and economic equality.

See also: Child Labor in the West; Early Modern Europe; Economics and Children in Western Societies; European Industrialization; Medieval and Renaissance Europe; Vocational Education, Industrial Education, and Trade Schools.


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