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Apprenticeships: still the best route into the working world?

Chris Bowlby traces the history of working apprenticeships from the pre-industrial age to the present day

Published: May 5, 2010 at 10:00 am
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The idea of apprenticeships still has great appeal. Successful businessmen and celebrities such as football manager Sir Alex Ferguson and chef Gordon Ramsay have waxed lyrical about the good start their apprenticeships gave them.


Governments have championed what they called “modern apprenticeship”. And Sir Alan Sugar selects his version of ‘The Apprentice’ every year in a blaze of TV publicity.

Many regard the apprenticeship as the best route into work, combining technical education with practical experience, while enabling business and industry to acquire skilled labour. It has added appeal today because it counters growing fears of entrenched youth unemployment as the effects of the recession continue to be felt and the unskilled are left further behind.

Implicit is the idea of apprenticeship as a tried and tested formula for social and economic progress. But when the word is used in the media or by politicians today, how much relationship does it bear to apprenticeship’s historical roots?

Dr Paul Ryan of King’s College, Cambridge, specialist in apprenticeship past and present, reminds us that this is a tradition reaching back well before the industrial age. It had roots in the guild rules of urban society, and significance well beyond the purely economic.

Masters in various crafts were paid a premium to take on boys who would serve a fixed number of years and were then permitted to trade in their own right as freemen. At its worst, though, says Paul Ryan, it could involve “long- term servitude”. Parish apprentices were pauper children farmed out, like Oliver Twist, as cheap labour.

The Industrial Revolution broke down the craft system, which policed apprenticeship in towns, but some new industries adapted the idea to their needs. In engineering, for example, apprenticeship followed by employment became the norm. In others, the system was more informal or intermittent. And it was far from universal. The service sector didn’t warm to the idea (with exceptions such as hairdressing). As a result, most apprentices were male recruits to ‘heavier’ industries and construction.

There remained a tension between the idea of high-quality training and further education on the one hand, and the demand for cheap young labour on the other. Especially in harder times, such as the 1920s and 30s, many apprentices were laid off when they had finished their term rather than being offered a permanent job at a full wage. Instead, employers recruited a new generation of young people on low pay or piecework rates, often receiving little or no technical instruction.

Partly as a response to such treatment, engineering apprentices soon became associated with high levels of industrial militancy. Even in 1941 there was an apprentices’ strike movement. This was “particularly audacious as the first major breach of the wartime legal ban on strikes”, says Paul Ryan, who is collecting material on apprentices’ industrial action.

Once the war was over, however, there were improvements, as the Labour government persuaded employers and unions to take technical education more seriously. Notable graduates from that period include Sir Alex Ferguson, an engineering apprentice on the Clyde while beginning his career in football, and senior figures in engineering companies such as Rolls Royce, who started as apprentices and eventually made it to the boardroom.

At its best, apprenticeship offered social mobility akin to that offered to academic working-class children by the grammar schools – though its status was always much lower.

From the 1970s, apprenticeship declined again. In times of economic turbulence, as global competition increased, Dr Ryan says that many companies could no longer justify offering extra training as a contribution to the wider economy. Meanwhile, many younger people began to regard further education at college and university as a more attractive option.

More recently, there has been a revival, in name at least, in what began as the government’s Modern Apprenticeship programme. The idea of being an apprentice, learning a skill on the job, is still something politicians, as well as TV producers, like to promote.

But good technical training and vocational education, promising social mobility too, is still frequently missing, argues Paul Ryan. The quality of apprenticeships, and the benefits to individuals and society that they bring, varies today, just as it has in the past.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history.

This feature was first published in the May 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine.


This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.


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