Historically, apprenticeship arose out of European feudal agricultural practices, in which work skills were transferred within families. In colonial America and through the mid-19th century, apprenticeship was modeled on Old World practices.

Ideally, the system of indentured apprenticeship (so called because duplicate copies of the agreement were stacked together and simultaneously torn, identically “indented” as guarantee of their authenticity) benefited both worker and employer. A master craftsman agreed to teach a young person a trade, as well as feed, clothe, and care for the apprentice as if he were a family member.  In exchange, the apprentice agreed to work without pay for up to seven years. When the contract was complete, typically at the age of twenty-one, the apprentice became a journeyman able to earn wages that would allow him in turn to set up as an independent master tradesman in his own workshop. At best, an apprenticeship provided training for aspiring craftsmen, labor for the master, and a new class of skilled artisans for the society.

Though subject to the pressures of egalitarian ideals, apprenticeship survived through the 19th century until mechanization and large-scale manufacturing displaced small artisanal workshops. 

Despite its near disappearance toward the mid-20th century, by the late 1960s craft apprenticeship saw a revival. The postwar craft movement was flourishing; the counterculture was in full bloom. Young people were questioning existing institutions of power, interested in experiential learning, getting back to authentic modes of living, which included making things. This period saw a series of initiatives to support apprenticeship, including individual grants from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation (1973) and the National Endowment for the Arts Craft Apprenticeships Program (1975). Gerry Williams was a central figure in advocating for the apprenticeship in these years, editing and publishing Apprenticeship in Craft, (1981), which collected diverse writings from multiple voices across craft disciplines. Williams proposed a conceptual framework for apprenticeship consisting of four stages:

  1. Finding (searching and choosing a relationship);
  2. Keeping (contracts, work arrangements, and compensation);
  3. Nurturing (enrichment and mutual support); and
  4. Releasing (establishment of credentials, placement, and professional development).

Why are we seeing this second wave of interest in apprenticeship? Perhaps the rise of wood-firing, with its labor-intensive demand for team work and association with tradition plays a role, in addition to the previously mentioned dismay about student debt, inflated tuitions, and scant academic job prospects. Perhaps the critique of corporate structures and capitalism resulting from perceived injustice of the extreme inequality of wealth and income distribution into also come into play. (See, for example, the success of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.) Once again, interest is growing in alternative modes of experience, grassroots collective action around arts education (see, ethical and smaller-scale economies, and meaningful work. The interest in locally produced artisanal foods is part of a wider return to an emphasis on place and quality. The availability of information and connectivity made possible by the internet must also be a factor.

Any reconsideration of apprenticeship must address three issues. One is practical. For apprenticeship to have a greater role it needs to become more accessible and widely practiced. Information for both studios and for apprentices should be more easily available. There needs to be a place to go—website, or organization—that is a repository for apprenticeship resources, sorting out and keeping current the details of the various models that are in place, and mapping the contractual, legal, and liability issues around this non-standard form of employment. (The latter is a particular matter of concern as informal surveys of colleagues and participants at a 2012 think tank on apprenticeship sponsored by the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design (CCCD) and at our NCECA panel and sessions reveal inadequate understandings of the legal, contractual, an tax issues that come with apprenticeship. Where wages are paid, workers are usually accounted for as independent contractors, which can be problematic, as Attorney Steve Aceto made clear in his presentation at the CCCD think tank. It is possible, Aceto believes, to create legal structures that protect the relationship and fulfill tax and labor regulations, but this will require further work,

Secondly, we need to make the case for more studios to embrace apprenticeship, advocating for its benefits on both sides of the relationship. If the youthful overflow crowds at the apprenticeship breakout sessions at the 2015 NCECA are any indication, many young people are interested in exploring apprenticeship opportunities. From established professionals, I hear that many more people seek apprenticeships than they can accommodate. I know of a dozen or so established potters who are thinking about taking on apprentices in the near future or who have recently have done so, but many are not clear on best ways to structure the relationship. So while part of the problem is a clearer mapping of “best practices,” advocating that apprenticeship is a two-way street, that studio heads glean something of value both in terms of labor and in less tangible currency: support, creative energy, and the input of younger perspectives on life and work has to be part of the effort. Professionals, like apprentices, need to understand that the relationship requires investment and that benefits accrue over time. It takes patience to bring someone green into the flow of a studio. The apprentice’s contribution—assisting in making an environment where the things that need doing get done without interruption, explanation, or mistakes—comes only after time spent. Methods and standards need to be understood and mastered, and it takes practice to establish a rhythm working together. Once the rhythm is in sync, it can foster ease, productivity, and creative growth for all involved.

A third issue to consider going forward is about how to open apprenticeship up to embrace some of the broadness, innovation, and inclusion of multiple perspectives that characterize other excellent learning environments. Might there be some room for diverse input, discussion, critical reading, and peer-to-peer exchange without diminishing the focus of the sustained intensive encounter between one established artist and one student?