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Learning on the Shop Floor: Historical Perspectives on Apprenticeship

Author(s):Munck, Bert De
Kaplan, Steven L.
Soly, Hugo
Reviewer(s):Ryan, Paul

Published by EH.NET (September 2008)

Bert De Munck, Steven L. Kaplan and Hugo Soly, editors, Learning on the Shop Floor: Historical Perspectives on Apprenticeship. New York: Berghahn, 2007. ix + 232 pp. $70 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84545-341-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Paul Ryan, Department of Management, King?s College London.

This collection comes from a conference held in 2000. The delay in publication is attributed to various disruptions. It is the twelfth volume in the series International Studies in Social History, which is edited by Marcel van der Linden.

Its publication responds to the extensive contemporary interest in apprenticeship ? among historians, as part of discussions of the role of guilds, proto-industrialization and social change; and among policy analysts, reflecting the benefits of apprenticeship for school-to-work transitions, notably in Germany.

The editors, De Munck, Kaplan and Soly, hold appointments at the Universities of Antwerp, Cornell and Brussels (Vrije Universiteit), respectively. They have divided their tasks in an unusual way. De Munck and Soly provide an extensive introduction. Kaplan contributes a lively and acute, if florid, set of ?afterthoughts,? analyzing the key issues and the evidence on display, and suggesting directions for further research. Of the eight intervening papers, seven cover European historical experiences: in broad chronological order, coopers and painters in fifteenth century Flanders (Stabel), various guilds in the Dutch golden age (Davids), Antwerp cabinet makers (De Munck), drawing schools in pre-revolutionary France (Crowston), Viennese weavers and purse makers (Steidl), textiles, metals and construction apprenticeship in Germany (Reith), and brewers in Victorian England (Reinarz). The remaining paper, on training in Japan (Nagata), extends the collection dramatically ? and oddly, given its pole position in the collection, in its forced treatment of contemporary employee training in large companies as a form of apprenticeship.

Most contributors subscribe to a revisionist historical view of apprenticeship, as less monolithic, standardized and guild-regulated, and more determined by economic factors, than in traditional interpretations, notably the ganze Haus perspective of the German historical school. Both individually and collectively, the papers document the heterogeneity of apprenticeship. Thus contract durations and completion rates are shown to have varied considerably, even within particular occupations in particular towns in particular periods, despite clear guild prescriptions.

To what extent should apprenticeship be interpreted in economic rather than in social terms, and is investment in skills its key function? Disagreements on these issues appear to have produced a lively conference. For Crowston, the social and educational functions of apprenticeship predominate. Among those emphasizing the economic functions of apprenticeship, Steidl and Reinartz both emphasize skill acquisition; De Munck, its potential as a signal of quality in the product market; Reith, production and wage labor rather than learning. Several contributions provide evidence in favor of a financial market failure interpretation of the apprenticeship contract, in which contract durations and premia are seen as jointly determined, within a market-oriented relationship, so as to ensure that the master?s training costs are recouped before the end of the contract. The evidence is a recurrently noted inverse relationship between duration and premium: a larger premium purchased a shorter training period.

A central theme is the relationship between the guild system and apprenticeship, traditionally taken to be close, and the degree to which guild restrictions hurt economic performance. Davids presents evidence of extensive disjuncture between the two in the Dutch golden age: some occupations were organized by a guild but lacked apprenticeship, while others had apprenticeship but were not subject to any guild-based regulation. De Munck shows that the Antwerp cabinetmakers? guild actually adopted an inclusive and expansive stance, welcoming skilled labor from other towns and countries. Stabel and Davids find that guild regulations were typically confined to the control of entry, in terms of the registration of new apprentices, the number of apprentices, and payment of the requisite fees; other details, including the apprentice?s length of service, and the compensation and training received, were left, whether by default or by disregard, to negotiation between the parties to the contract.

The growth of wage payments to apprentices has traditionally been read as evidence of the decay of apprenticeship as an institution. Reith?s interpretation focuses on increases in the scale of production and in the productive contributions of apprentices. It neglects however a simple economic interpretation: viz. that it was the very decline of living in (i.e., by the apprentice in the master?s household) that caused the conversion of a payment in kind (board and lodging) into a cash payment (the apprentice wage). In that case, the growth of waged apprenticeship might well have represented the decay of the social functions of apprenticeship, in terms of youth socialization and control. Reinarz? study of apprentices in brewing in Victorian England suggests that living in was not necessary for youth morality to be supervised by the employer-master, but the apprentices in question were potential gentleman managers, not manual workers.

The collection illustrates frequently the frustratingly opaque nature of apprenticeship, particularly in terms of what apprentices did and had done to them in the workplace. The difficulty is compounded by uncertainty as to the meaning and scope of ?apprenticeship,? which in places (Introduction, Nagata) is treated functionally, and confusingly, as coterminous with on-the-job learning, rather than as an occupationally focused and externally regulated subset thereof.

More useful is the contrast drawn by both Crowston and Reinartz between apprenticeship, as experiential learning, and classroom-based instruction, as academic learning, and viewed at the time as alternative modes of learning. By contrast, for apprentice surgeons in seventeenth century Holland, technical education and production-based learning were treated as complementary rather than alternative ways of learning ? as nowadays in most national apprenticeship systems.

The papers all present evidence, some of it statistical, drawn from the archives of guilds, charities, towns, etc. The diversity of evidence is refreshing. A recurrent problem, however, is over-generalization, in terms of the load-bearing potential of the evidence. Thus Steidl concludes that apprenticeship was ?very efficient,? as a source of economic dynamism, but her evidence on contract duration and completions, while interesting in itself, hardly sustains so strong a conclusion. Some findings potentially conflict with the evidence provided. Stabel?s inference that apprentices were widely used as cheap labor in late medieval Flanders sits uneasily with his evidence that masters typically trained only one or two apprentices in a full lifetime. Such phrases as ?it is probable that,? ?is likely to have had? and ?it can be assumed that? occur frequently, as part of a tendency to draw broad conclusions from limited evidence.

The coverage of a conference volume is inevitably limited by its contributors? interests. Topics that are not represented include collective action by apprentices (e.g., in the streets of seventeenth century London) and the rituals associated with apprenticeship (in England, the Shrove Tuesday ?holiday,? when public misbehavior by apprentices was sanctioned).

Among the striking details on view are: the demarcation challenge posed by rag and bone merchants to Antwerp?s guild of cabinet makers (De Munck); a posited link between Madame Bovary and apprenticeship (Kaplan); and Steidl?s enthusiasm over the enrolment books for female apprentices kept by the Viennese silk weavers? guild (?these are marvelous sources?).

Paul Ryan is Professor of Labour Economics and Training in the Department of Management, King?s College London ( His publications include ?Apprentice Strikes in Twentieth Century UK Engineering and Shipbuilding,? Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, Autumn 2004.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval