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Background

The apprenticeship system for training in certain trades was formalized in the early 20th century in America. The idea for apprentices dates back thousands of years, however. The earliest record of laws regarding apprenticeship is found in the Code of Hammurabi, in which it is stated that an apprentice must be treated as an adopted son. Artisans were required to teach their craft to young men. In ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, this same method of the passing of knowledge from master craftsman to apprentices continued.

Craft workers started to organize in Western Europe by the 12th century. Craft guilds were established that included masters, journeymen, and apprentices. These guilds had similar purposes and functions to those of today’s trade unions: They created the work for apprentices, monitored the work environment and conditions, and set the wages for journeymen. Many academics cite the following passage as evidence of the high level of respect craft workers received in medieval England. It’s from the Red Book of Hergest, which features tales of King Arthur: “The knife is in the meat, and the drink is in the horn, and there is revelry in Arthur’s Hall; and none may enter therein but the son of a King of a privileged country, or a craftsman bringing his craft.”

In colonial America, apprenticeships were initially legal contracts between the master craftsman and the apprentice. These were binding agreements in which the apprentice was mandated to work for the master craftsman for a specified amount of time, which could be up to seven years or until the apprentice turned 21. They learned trade skills while working on the job. Payment was usually in the form of room and board and basic education. At the completion of the apprenticeship, the apprentice was designated a journeyman, a skilled tradesman who works for wages.

Paul Revere learned silversmithing from his father, and Revere’s two sons learned the craft through apprenticeships in the family’s silversmith shop in Boston. Revere is credited with founding the copper and brass industry when he established the first copper-rolling mill in Canton, Massachusetts. Benjamin Franklin, who was the son of a soap maker, was 12 years old when he started as an indentured apprentice in his half-brother’s print shop. The agreement was for a nine-year term of service in exchange for food, lodging, and other necessities. Franklin spent his free time furthering his education by reading books and writing articles, and quit the apprenticeship early to pursue work as a printer.

The industrial revolution changed the apprenticeship system from a domestic arrangement, in which the apprentice was entirely dependent on a master for shelter and food, to a business arrangement, in which apprentices were paid wages for their services and could live where they chose. Many industries were developing at that time, and apprentices worked in iron foundries and shipbuilding yards, navy yards, government arsenals, printing shops, and machinery and electrical equipment plans.

Congress enacted the National Apprenticeship Law, also known as the Fitzgerald Act, in 1937, to promote labor standards for apprenticeship programs and include representation of both employers and labor. Today, the Department of Labor administers registered apprenticeship programs in hundreds of occupations, including construction, manufacturing, transportation, and service industries.