The Apprenticeship System In America

Cassier's Magazine Cover 1906 -1907With all the buzz about STEM programs, I thought it would be great to republish this article about apprenticeship which has fallen from education as I know it.

[the following article is republished from Cassier’s Magazine November 1906 under the original title “The Apprenticeship System in America: Its Relation to Trade Schools and the Influence of Each on American Exports”, By Luther D. Burlingame, Chief Draughtsman of the Brown & Sharpe Mfg. Co., Providence R.I., U.S.A.]

To consider the bearing of education and skill on the foreign trade of a country may seem a long step from cause to
effect. It is, however, an important one, and in considering the question of American progress in the markets of the world, it should be given due weight. We should know whether the present gain in America’s foreign commerce is due to the vastness of her natural resources, resulting in the exportation of raw material and roughly finished material only, or whether the country is developing skill among its workmen that is extending the sale of finished products abroad on the basis of their superior quality, as shown by their design and workmanship. We should know whether we are pursuing such a policy in training our youth as to develop the highest degree of efficiency and
skill in those trades on which the future prosperity of the country and its standing abroad must be based. The training of skilled workmen is one of the great problems of this industrial age, and the nation that, in the largest measure, solves this problem successfully, will attain the highest success.

An article by F. A. Vanderlip was recently published in the “World’s Work,” leaving the impression in the mind of the reader that cheapness rather than high quality is what sells American goods abroad. This, he argues, is because American workmen are not so well trained, being less skillful than those in corresponding trades in other countries. He lays the lack of skill in America largely to the extensive use of automatic machines and operations, teaching the workman one thing only and leaving him helpless when any hand-skill is required or thinking is to be done. The remedy, he points out, is in the establishment of trade schools on the line of the “German Continuation Schools.” Mr. Vanderlip discusses especially the mechanical trades, properly emphasizing these, as they underlie all modern progress in manufactures. Dr. Louis Bell also sounds a note of warning along similar lines in a leading article in “The Engineering Magazine” for September.

The statements and conclusions of both of these writers seem far too sweeping to many that have had experience with manufactures on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, in the machine tool industry, most of the modern types of machines have been either invented or brought to their present state of perfection in America, and have been, and still are being, sold abroad not on account of their cheapness, but because of the merit of their design and the
excellence of their workmanship. In many cases the prices of the American machines are materially higher than those of the competing machines in the countries where sold. Those makers abroad who have produced the most successful tools of this character have modeled largely on American lines; not only this, but in many cases their engineers have visited America and made a careful study of American methods, adopting them for their own work, and they have employed American managers and designers to develop what they by so doing recognize to be superior in workmanship and design.

At the Paris Exposition in 1900, among the large number of “Grand Prix” that came to America, one American firm of machine tool builders was rated the highest among all competing countries, points requiring skilled workmanship being prominent in determining the awards; and at the Liege Exposition last year the jury gave the highest possible rating to an exhibit of American machinery, a member of the jury saying that if there were anything higher, it would have been awarded.

Among mechanical products, aside from machine tools, which might be mentioned, that hold the foreign market, in part at least on account of superior workmanship, are gun-making machinery, shoe machinery, sewing . machines, barbers’ clippers, typewriters, cash registers, machinists’ tools, dental instruments, printing presses, etc., these being mentioned at random as representative of a large class. According to the report of the United States Bureau of Manufactures, American machinery to the value of over $82,000,000 was exported in 1904.

While it may be true that America has not yet developed the highest grade of artistic skill, as far as paintings, decorations, statuary, etc., are concerned, when it comes to machinery, experts have given the highest praise to American designs and workmanship. If successful American manufacture is based on the extensive use of automatic machinery, such machinery requiring the highest degree of skill in its design, manufacture, and maintenance, it is evidence in itself that America is not lacking or falling behind in skill. It is also true that specialists, concentrating on one line of manufacture, directing all their energies to the perfection of that product, can be expected to bring it to a higher state of excellence than if the same workmen were expected to build anything from a cash register to a locomotive. This concentration and specializing is distinctively the American method, — a method well championed by Mr. Alex. E. Outerbridge, Jr., in the October number of this magazine.

There is often a tendency to overlook home advantages in grasping for those at a distance. Competent observers have repeatedly shown that, class for class, American workers are brighter, better educated, and better paid than those abroad. All this results in a higher standard of living and, its natural accompaniment, a higher grade of skill. An
indication of this is shown in the extensive reading of mechanical and technical papers by the American workman, a thing almost unknown among the same class elsewhere. Another indication is in the number of patents taken out for inventions by American workmen. The gulf between the workman and the technically educated engineer abroad is much wider and harder to bridge than in America. There is less willingness to consult with, and get help from, the workman by those whose technical training has often been on such lines as to leave them impractical themselves and contemptuous of the suggestions of those actually doing the work. The natural result is a lack of efficiency and a lowering in the standard of skill.

The question as to whether America has in the past excelled in workmanship is, however, of secondary importance to that as to how, in the future, such skill can best be cultivated as to give us the largest possible share in the world’s progress. As a means of developing such skill, I wish to urge the importance of the apprenticeship system and the need of its future extension, because the way to learn how to do a thing is to do it and then to do it over and over again until it becomes second nature to do it correctly and quickly. This is skill and it is the skillful
workman who turns out work which, on account of its superiority, holds the market at home and abroad.

Mr. Vanderlip, in common with many other writers, assumes at the start that there is no apprenticeship system at the present time, and bases his recommendations of a remedy on such a supposition. This seems to show a lack of investigation as to facts, for whenever an investigation has been made, it has shown that there exists in our mechanical trades a well-established system of apprenticeship adapted to modern needs and becoming every year more and more a factor in the production of skilled workmen. Thanks to this and the many helpful forms of industrial training, American youth are to-day receiving a training that is developing a higher and higher degree of skill.

It may be true that there is little of the old form of apprenticeship remaining where a boy was indentured
to a master, living and working with him during his minority. This would not be possible with the changed conditions, but that which has taken its place is far better suited to the requirements of modern manufacturing and gives the boy at least an equal, and, in many cases, a much larger, opportunity to learn the business in which he is engaged. In almost all large centres of manufacture, schools now exist which apprentices can attend during evenings, studying those branches helpful in their trade which they do not get in their daily work. Some of the employers require a study of mathematics, draughting, and other helpful subjects as a part of the course of apprenticeship. The tendency of such an apprenticeship training is to preserve the balance between head and hand work, and an intelligent boy who finds it necessarv to leave school after completing the gram-mar school course need not feel that he is seriously handicapped, for with evening study he can acquire additional knowledge, assimilating it with his daily work in a way to be the most useful in the development of skill.

There are those who feel that the tendency is now too much towards the cultivation of the mind compared
with a training to develop manual dexterity. Many a boy has, in the past, received a valuable training on the farm, where the varied needs furnished work that cultivated ingenuity and resourcefulness, these being supplemented by the limited training at the winter school. A judgment of the proper proportion of things was thus developed, so that many men have attained a high degree of success in life due to such a training. Modern city life offers less opportunity for the cultivation of skill in the varied pursuits of home life than was possible under these earlier conditions, and besides, the thoughts of our people have been largely directed to school training as that necessary for a successful life. This in itself would have a tendency in the direction of a falling-off in skill among- workmen if not counteracted by the introduction of other methods of training.

Such methods have been found in the development of the apprenticeship system and of manual training” and industrial schools. These schools are doing a necessarv and useful work, but they cannot pretend to give trade skill to any such extent as experience in the shop would give. and that is where the apprenticeship system finds its field of usefulness. It is true that no system of apprenticeship can be made to fit all cases, and schools aiming to give trade skill have entered the field and proved their fitness to meet many special conditions. As an example I would
mention the work among the negroes at Tuskegee, in Alabama, where trades are taught under school organization. The artisan school recently started at Syracuse, New York, of which Prof. John E. Sweet is the prime mover, aims also at real trade teaching. This school has for its object the teaching of the machinist’s and allied trades by doing
commercial work, alternated with mental training. There are also schools to teach shop men how to read drawings, schools to teach draughtsmen shop work, schools to teach pattern makers moulding, etc., etc. Many such schools, as Mr. Vanderlip proposes, schools to train those already employed so that they may be more efficient in their work
and better fitted for promotion, are in successful operation in America. Correspondence schools also are ready to give instruction in all branches of manufacturing enterprise.

None of these varied substitutes can, however, fully take the place of a system of apprenticeship, a system
in which a boy is indentured to some reliable up-to-date concern for a term of years and pledges himself to serve faithfully during that time. Some form of evening industrial school training is now within reach of boys serving such an apprenticeship and will give them the help needed to round out their practical experience in the shop. Here is where an increase in the number of “Continuation Schools” would give additional means of training-, serving as the aid and auxiliary of the apprenticeship system and not as a substitute for it.

Mr. Fred. J. Miller, editor of the “American Machinist,” writing several years ago of his personal observation of the conditions in Ger- many, said: —

“One gets the impression that technical education is somewhat overdone, — that too much dependence is placed upon it and too little importance is attached to practical shop experience by those who direct industrial operations. Many such men (technically educated) are found in the shops who know a lot that is to be found in books, but nothing whatever of skilled workshop manipulations, and they seem to have been deprived of the power of acquiring the habit of independent thought.”

Among the requisites of a successful system of apprenticeship are: — Selection of Boys. — There should be a careful selection of boys fitted for the work. This implies a period of trial, during which the boys are tested as to their intelligence, application, accuracy, interest, and other desirable qualifications, and those candidates who are found lacking are weeded out.

Rate of Pay. — The rate of pay should also be determined beforehand and should be uniform for all, increasing in periods frequently enough to make the boys feel that they are getting ahead. A deposit required at the beginning for the privilege of learning the trade is an assurance of good faith and helps the apprentice and his parents or guardians to take the matter more seriously. Where a worthy candidate cannot advance the required amount, it can be taken from his pay in weekly installments. The payment of a bonus at the end of the service of apprenticeship, if warranted, for faithful service, is an effective incentive to most boys. It helps to keep them to their agreement toward the end of their apprenticeship when they have become valuable to their employers and are likely to have tempting offers from outside. It is very desirable that the boys have some job work from time to time, so that, by exerting themselves, they can make higher wages than their regular apprenticeship rates. This helps to put them on a commercial basis as regards time and gives them an added interest in their work.

Length of Service. — The length of service should be for a period agreed upon beforehand, and should be de-
pendent upon the nature of the trade and the age at which candidates can successfully enter it. In the case of machinist apprentices, where the apprenticeship can be commenced between the ages of 16 and 18, four years have proved a satisfactory term, while in the case of apprentices in draughting, where it is desirable that they start in when more mature and with a previous school training in the rudiments, two or three years are about all that can be required. It is a help if part of this time can be spent in the machine shop, working a short time in each of the important departments.

Variety of Work. — The kind of work given to the boys should be in such a variety as to give the most varied training possible. The apprentice and his future should be considered as well as the profits to be derived from his services at the time. It is desirable that the schedule should be arranged, in part at least, beforehand, so that it will be definitely known, for example, in the case of the machinist apprentice, how much time will be devoted to lathe work, drilling, milling, assembling, erecting, screw cutting, planing, scraping, bench work, etc.

Outside Study. — If possible, outside study and auxiliary training in evening schools to supplement the work in the shop should be a part of every boy’s training. When evening schools are not available or suitable, private instruction or home study can be resorted to. Such study, in addition to the knowledge gained, gives confidence to the student and should be a means of developing character and those qualities that will make a boy feel like holding his head up in the world and taking for him- self that social position that some claim is not accorded to the mechanic or other manual worker, so that he will feel no lowering of social standing” as compared with clerks and others whose work does not require the same degree of manual skill.

The necessity for this auxiliary training makes a field for the extension of industrial schools to be within reach of more and more workers, and such schools can be of help to both apprentices and operators of machines; the more practical they are made and the more experience with real work their instructors can have, the more probability there will be of their training the students to meet the needs of manufacturers.

Competent Oversight. — The apprentices should be in charge of a competent man whose duty in whole or in part should be to see that a proper selection is made in hiring new boys. He should look after their general welfare, keeping an oversight of them both inside and outside of the works, encouraging, correcting, and teaching without such a show of paternalism as to take away the boy’s self-reliance, but working in sympathy with him and keeping such watchfulness as to see that he gets a fair deal.

In small shops, where but a few apprentices are employed, the superintendent or manager can take this duty upon himself. In the larger works, however, where a large number of apprentices are employed, it becomes important to have a man who can give much, or all, of his time to this work. Every shop, however small, should be looking to the
future in the training of boys, by a system of apprenticeship, to shoulder the responsibilities of the work later: and it is to the wide extension of such a policy that we can look for the greatest future development of skill.

Among some notable examples of the modern development of the apprenticeship system in the larger manufactories are those of the Westinghouse Companies, in which the apprentices are classified according to education and previous experience, and this classification determines their course of training. The Baldwin Locomotive Works also classify their apprentices, training each class for some particular one of the various needs of the work. Evening study is required as a part of their course. The General Electric Company also require study as a part of their apprenticeship system, and five hours a week are taken from working time for that purpose. The system in successful operation at their Lynn works is well described in an article by M. W. Alexander in the September issue of “Machinery.” At the Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company’s works, the apprenticeship system has been a factor in the success of the business from the start and, as time goes on, is being given more and more the attention that its importance warrants. Many of the most important positions in the works are filled by former apprentices.

Any employer who pursues a policy of promoting the tried men in his employ, thus establishing the feeling that successful endeavour will win promotion, is building on a solid foundation. In this way boys starting to work in early life and proving capable and faithful, can put themselves in line of promotion sooner than when more time is spent in preliminary outside training. The industrial schools of America should have all the encouragement possible, but should not be held before the youth of the land as giving an adequate substitute for the modern apprenticeship system to develop skill in a given trade; rather both should work hand in hand for the accomplishment of that end.

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