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Revealing the mystery of modern trades training

Lindsay Langill
Revealing the mystery of modern trades training


This is the first of a series of articles exploring the mystery and history behind trades training and how it has evolved over the years to what it has become today.


For centuries knowledge has been passed down from one generation to another.

Whether formally or informally much of what we know has been learned from others.

Trades training has relied on this method of knowledge dissemination for centuries.

The Roman Empire valued the skills and high standards of workmanship that enabled the empire to build and conquer during a time when “all roads led to Rome”.

Similarly, Europe positioned itself with men and women of skill well in front of the Industrial Revolution by advancing trades training mainly through apprenticeships. As de la Croix argued, Europe was set for a successful Industrial Revolution because centuries prior skills were being taught that saw skilled workmen mature through the system.

As de la Croix and other researchers have observed, without the workmanship of skilled craftsmen who could turn blueprints into working machines and could scale up models, the insights of the giants of the Industrial Revolution would have been as economically inconsequential as Leonardo da Vinci’s brilliant technological sketches.

English ironmasters such as John Wilkinson were indispensable to inventors such as James Watt and Samuel Crompton. Tradespeople turned inventors’ ideas into reality and helped bring about the Industrial Revolution.

In connecting skilled trades workers with the inventors — a marriage of the skilled doers and the innovative thinkers gave rise to a system of training and apprenticeship that became the backbone behind advancing a nation.

Apprentice training within Europe advanced through four institutions and similarities can still be found today within our modern apprenticeship system.


The Family

In the 11th century, historical documentation shows certain skills, crafts and trades were part of European family tradition; skills typically passed down from father to son and mother to daughter. Certain families had monopolies on specific trade work as “skilled families of artisans” emerged. Towns and cities where this practice existed typically had slower growth as dissemination of knowledge was slow to expand outward. One risk associated with this model was if no son was born or should a single family member die before his/her time, this knowledge would die along with the family.


The Clan

There is a saying that there is power in numbers and larger family units provided greater success when knowledge was to be shared. These family units or clans were able to provide the apprentices with greater exposure. Not only did more opportunities present themselves but a greater number of apprentices were put to work alongside a number of skilled artisans. While the knowledge was kept in the family clan, the dissemination of knowledge transfer was greater and influenced a wider geographical area.



The earliest documentation indicates guilds had their beginnings in the Roman era with merchants forming consortiums to oversee and control business. While these collapsed after the fall of the Empire, the structure of the guild was brought back in Europe during the High Middle Ages (1000 –1250 AD).

Early guilds saw European craftsmen form associations based on their trade. Masons, carpenters, metalworkers and other artisans would form separate associations where they shared and controlled the secrets of their trade. Besides controlling the trade knowledge, they also controlled price. The founders of the guilds were master craftsmen who then went about hiring apprentices to work and learn the trade.

Apprentices completing their time in the trade moved on to be recognized as a journeyperson. Once a journeyperson, the next step to master craftsman meant producing a “masterpiece” that would be accepted by the guild founders as being a piece of original work that was completed to the highest standards. Should the journeyperson fail at this attempt he would remain a journeyperson for the rest of his life. The guild model provided apprentices with even greater exposure to work, knowledge and skills as they were surrounded with a structured system guided by the best specialized trades workers.


Free Market

The free market is very similar to what we see today where apprentices move and work in the free economy. Operating as independent contractors, these skilled workers moved about, set their own rates of pay and took on work on their own terms.

During the pre-industrial revolution period the free market institution made it possible for apprentices to move about and learn from the best masters. According to Maddison (2010), knowledge was disseminated the fastest through this institution without being constrained by the anti-competitive and controlling aspect of guilds. This model allowed journeymen to work in unrestricted environments resulting in the expansion of knowledge in Europe and beyond.



In days gone by, an apprentice would carry out his/her learning in a factory or on the job. No time was spent in school.

Today, apprenticeship training combines on-the-job training with in-school technical training. While there are varying differences of training models throughout Canadian jurisdictions the core premise remains the same. Guided by Red Seal standards apprentices follow the agreed upon principles and outcomes.

Within most provinces, technical training is carried out by public and private training providers alike. British Columbia has 15 publicly funded trades training schools located across the province and additionally, there are more than twice as many private schools providing trades training. While a few of the private schools are completely neutral in enterprise, the majority of the private trainers are union schools. These schools focus on one trade or a group of similar trades.

Admissions to public training schools are open and available to any registered Canadian apprentice. However, union schools typically restrict admission to registered apprentices from their member companies.

Apprenticeship has been the proven model of knowledge transfer for trades spanning more than 1,000 years. The success of the Industrial Revolution can be attributed to the European apprenticeship system, and the skilled workers that were able to create, build and innovate.

Truly the strength of the system is in exposing the apprentice to as many tasks and skilled mentors as possible — to learn from many. Further, time in school must be provided using the best equipment, challenging instructional best practices and learning from each other. The modern day apprenticeship system is still proudly in the business of knowledge dissemination for skilled trades.

Dr. Lindsay Langill is a former dean of trades and technology. Langill holds Red Seal certification in three trades and has a bachelor of education and master of arts from UBC along with a doctorate from the University of Calgary. He is president of 3-Degrees Consulting Ltd.

Recent Comments (2 comments)

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Tim Carson Image Tim Carson

Thanks for the article Lindsay. I especially appreciated the information surrounding Guilds. Historically, guilds were also formed to protect and influence the spread and growth of trades-people despite opposition from oppressive monarchies and newly forming democracies.
Your insight about the dissemination of information is spot on. My hope is that the mentorship model of apprenticeship training with retain it’s historical heritage as it seeks to integrate new technologies into it’s repertoire.

Thanks again,