Apprenticeships in Europe

Apprenticeships were a hallmark of Medieval European society, a system of transferring knowledge and skills that was crucial to Europe’s rise. (1) Before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, knowledge was tacit and skills were transmitted across generations through apprenticeships. Like modern apprenticeships, apprenticeships during the Middle Ages involved a collaborative relationship between a skilled adult and a younger pupil. Traditionally, apprentices spent most of their waking hours in the master’s workshop, where they learned from the mentor and more experienced apprentices and journeymen. Through their time in the workshop, apprentices would acquire skills of the mentor through imitation and guided experimentation. Following initial training, apprentices would often become journeymen, travelling between towns to learn or teach new techniques.  The vast and uniformly regulated system of apprenticeships present in Medieval Europe helped make the Industrial Revolution a capitalistic success. Without the workmanship, provided by a strong system of apprenticeship, that could convert blueprints into feasible machines, the ingenuity envisioned during the Industrial Revolution could not have been realized economically.

Apprenticeships in the US

During America’s inception, craft workers coming to the New World from European countries arrived with practices of indenture and the system of apprenticeship that was established during the Middle Ages. In colonial New England, poor children, often less than ten years of age, were indentured to mentors who would teach them a particular trade. (2) In addition to teaching a trade of their expertise, mentors would also display community and civic duty by teaching their apprentice basic reading, writing, and grammar. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, only occupations that remained on a handicraft or in industries where production unit varied still needed apprentices. (3) As both the economy and workforce grade of the US continued to advance, legislation by the government and policies by individual industries helped standardize apprenticeship. In 1865, the Pennsylvania Railroad became one of the first companies to implement a graduated wage scale paid to apprentices. (2)

Legislation Pertaining to Apprenticeships

In 1911, the first legislation in the US to promote an organized system of apprenticeship was implemented in Wisconsin. (2) In addition to placing apprenticeships under the responsibility of the industrial commission, the legislation also required all apprentices to attend classroom instruction for five hours every week. Following a concerted effort by labor organizations, educators, government officials, and national employers to create a uniform national apprenticeship system in the 1920’s, the Secretary of Labor appointed the Federal Committee on Apprenticeship to serve as the national policy-recommending body for apprenticeships in the US. In 1937, Congress passed what is arguably the single most important national statute regarding apprenticeship in the US. Under the National Apprenticeship Act, or the “Fitzgerald Act”,  the Department of Labor was mandated to formulate the furtherance of labor standards necessary to “safeguard the welfare of apprentices and to cooperate with the States in the promotion of such standard”. The Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training was also established as the national administrative agency in the Department of Labor to carry out the goals of the major legislation, with guidance from the Federal Committee on Apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships in North Carolina

Traditionally, apprenticeship in North Carolina has been present in two forms: compulsory and voluntary apprenticeship. (3) The immediate goal of compulsory apprenticeship was to provide a means of economic support for indigent orphans and abandoned children in their adulthood. First used in the last quarter of the 17th Century, compulsory apprenticeship was discontinued in the early 1900’s with the passage of theChildren Welfare Act in 1919. Voluntary apprenticeship was present in North Carolina since the immigration of European colonists who had already been a part of Europe’s apprenticeship system. Based upon common law than any statutes, young pupils were bound to service to mentors by their parents. However, the Apprenticeship Act of 1889 forbade the voluntary apprenticeship of children younger than fourteen years of age and set the term of apprenticeships to be three to five years. Since 1939, however, apprentices have been required under statue to be sixteen years or older. Following the passing of the National Apprenticeship Act in 1937, North Carolina implemented the 1939 Voluntary Apprenticeship Act, providing for the creation of apprenticeship committees to collaborate with school authorities, employers, and employees in creating local programs. North Carolina’s modern apprenticeship program is now coordinated by the Department of Labor and is supported by interested industries, businesses, labor unions, technical institutions, and high schools.


  1. Doepke, Matthias, et al. “More than family matters: Apprenticeship and the rise of Europe”. VOX. CEPR. 2 March 2017. Web. 8 June 2017.
  2. “History of Apprenticeship”. Access Washington. Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. Web. 8 June 2017.
  3. Canipe, Jeremy, et al. “Apprenticeship”. NCPedia. 2006. 8 June 2017.