The Status of the Apprentice


Let the boy learn a trade. Watch him at his work and at his play; study his likes and dislikes; place him in a position where he can exercise his talent— if he has any—or his creative genius. Place him where he can learn a trade for which he is best adapted, mentally and physically, and if in after years, he chooses to follow any other line of endeavor, business, law, polities, literature, the stage, the lecture platform, or whatever he considers himself best adapted for, he may do so.

Then should his efforts prove a failure he has always a trade to fall back upon which will at least give him a chance to earn more than the pay of a day laborer. This argument was much in vogue years ago, and we sometimes hear it today, but the obstacles placed in the way make it impossible of achievement. Times have changed, and more’s the pity.

Under present day conditions the greed of the employer is the most serious handicap with which a boy learning a trade has to contend. Put him in a building or in a factory and if he proves an adept in any one particular line or any particular machine, the employer considers it his sacred duty to keep the boy at the one particular task that proves most profitable to the firm. This makes the boy a specialist in one line of endeavor and gives him no opportunity to become an all-round mechanic.

The boy himself is not entirely blameless, as the boys of today are in too big a hurry to earn a man’s salary and in many cases have not the patience to apply themselves to one particular trade; when they see an opportunity of earning ten or twelve dollars a week in some other line of business, they do not consider that the training they are receiving on the buildings and in the factories is fitting them for better times in the future.

They do not consider that this is equivalent to a college education, or the apprenticeship a man must serve to become a member of the bar, or become a doctor. They want their wage now and have no patience to gather material for the future. Speed seems to be the keystone to success and success they are convinced, must be achieved at once.

The employer insists upon keeping a man at high speed at all times and thinks the same should apply to the boy, with the result that the initiative is gone. Many of the boys of today have ideals and a desire to create something useful and beautiful. They like to handle the tools of the various trades. They like to exercise their ingenuity and manufacture something of their own design; make it with their own hands; take pride in it. Under present conditions this is impossible.

The boy’s youth is gone and he finds himself a drudge, a one machine man, or a man whom no employer will hire except when he has that work to be done to which the man or boy is best adapted. When that work is done the man is discharged without hope of further employment until something in his own line presents itself.

There is no question in the minds of many of the old-time mechanics of today, but that if our boys were given an opportunity they would develop great talent and become great architects and builders, but their ambition is killed at the start and as someone said long ago, “each year more talent is buried than is developed.” We, who have followed the trade for many years, know this to be true. We know it from experience and all we have to look back to is “what might have been” had we been given a chance and the man who cannot learn in the great school of experience is a hopeless case and a poor citizen.

Therefore, those of us who have the interest and welfare of our fellow citizens at heart, ask that those who follow us in the trade of our choosing be given an opportunity to broaden, to develop, to become big men if it is in them; and, if it is in them and opportunity presents itself, we are satisfied that our boys will make good.

We have tried to convince the employers that our methods and our ideas are correct and in negotiating a working agreement we asked that provisions be made for the boy. Sympathy was expressed and laws forbidding the indenture of boys as apprentices—or alleged laws—were cited, which, if in force, could easily be repealed or amended by unity of action upon the part of both employer and employe. Sympathy is a good thing but when inoperative it is not of much assistance in accomplishing the end desired.

The vocational school is not a desirable feature in the economic life of the workers although our national organization is on record through one of its highest officials as favoring industrial schools. Our candid opinion is that these schools turn out numbers of “handy men” and but few mechanics. Attendance keeps the boy out of mischief and amuses him, but no practical knowledge of actual building construction is obtained.

The trade school gives a boy the theory of construction and that is all. In theory buildings are plumb, floors are level, and he is taught this must be so if the various mechanics engaged know their business, but Dame Nature has a word or two to say in the matter as experienced men well know. Foundations will settle, so will walls, with the result that more is found to contend with than mere theory and that “more” is, to make matters look right whether they are right or not.

In a trade school—so it seems to many of us—the boy starts where he ought to finish. Let him begin at the foundation and work up. Let him learn the practical side through actual experience and supplement that with the theoretical and the technical and nine times out of ten the boy grows into a finished mechanic and is complete master of both practice and theory, and best of all, he faces the world absolutely sure of himself and with a self-confidence that is a greater business asset than either money or “pull.” There is but one conclusion to which we can arrive and that is that actual experience in the building, the shop and the factory, is essential to the well-being of the boy.

The trade school gratifies the boy’s desire to create, to build something with his own hands but it carries him to no greater heights than a toy house or a toy boat or something else in miniature. The experience in buildings or shops shows things as they are. He learns the nature of the material with which he works and how to treat that material. How to allow for shrinkage and to prevent warping and twisting, therefore it seems to us that trade schools should make it an object to select pupils actually engaged in the business of building or constructing and no doubt these philanthropic institutions would be glad to do so, but the unfortunate feature is that the average employer will not bother with an apprentice.

The question is many sided. The philanthropist in riding his hobby, the trade school, wants no interference from outside interests. The employers’ greed for gain deprives the boy of his chance and the boy’s resentment at being kept on one machine or one class of work prompts him to seek other employment, all of which brings about a condition which seems impossible of adjustment. We have always had to fight for wages and conditions and it looks as though we would have to fight for the boy.

E. H. Neal

The Carpenter – March, 1916

—Jeff Burks

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4 Responses to The Status of the Apprentice

  1. timothyc72 says:

    Can you tell me roughly what year the picture above this post is from? I have one of these workbenches and was trying to determine how old it is. Thanks in advance.



  2. I think it is relevant here to mention Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, specifically his discussion of the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917. All this goes back to the fundamental problem of teaching craft skills to young people for all the wrong reasons. Craft is culture, humanities, life, not dry-as-dust preservation.


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