the pros and cons of accredited training systems in craft

Acredited training systems in craft have a very long history having their golden age with the medieval guilds when it was impossible to practice without having been through a rigorous training and being a fully signed up member of the guild. William Morris was a huge fan of the medieval guilds and there were various attempts to resurrect some semblance of the system during the Arts and Crafts movement. Some feel that today we lack any marker of quality to differentiate between a highly skilled and trained craftsperson and someone who did a few weekend craft courses then set up in business and that the answer is proper national qualifications.

This entertaining video aims to highlight the importance of hand skills in all our daily lives and to show the poor state we would be in without them.

The video is produced by ZDH the German guild organisation. Fellow greenwoodworkers will know of the German system of apprentices, journeymen and masters, we often get visits from traveling journeymen in their traditional costume and they tend to be highly skilled and a good advert for the system. There are pros and cons to this sort of regulation however and pros and cons of our unregulated craft world. I would like to discuss these issues and would welcome others thoughts in the comments below or on the HCA facebook page.

First lets get an overview of the German system form a friend Michail Schutte who was an apprentice then journeyman and is one of the most skilled woodworkers I have met.

“ZDH stands in the tradition of the medieval guilds, not unbroken though. guilds had been abolished in germany in 1871 or so, and then reinvented by the nazis in the 1930 s – that s when the now ZDH will have it s roots…basically its a huge lobbying group, protected by special guildlaws. that has pros and cons, among the pros is the education and apprenticeship system it provides, which sets standards for for apprenticeship schemes, which are not bad, but could also be better. apprenticeships normally happen in a masterworkshop, the aprentice working for three years in a workshop, going to college one day a week, and then passing a central test called gesellenprüfung. after working for three years as a geselle, one can go to materschool for about a year, and then start setting up one s own business and taking on apprentices. while one gets a small pay doing the apprenticeship, and then earns a proper wage working as geselle, all fixed by the unions, one has to pay something like 10,000 euros to do the masterschool.”

The cons are as that there is a huge bureaucracy involved in running the system. Those that have paid to be part of this expensive club are very keen to protect their interests. I for instance would not be allowed to work as a turner in Germany despite 15 years experience as I have not done the ZDH training. If I wanted to work there I would have to do the training involving years producing set designs working on electric lathes even if that was not my end goal. Twelve years ago I encountered the same system in Romania where craftspeople have to be registered with the government in order to be recognised businesses, first you have to go to art school and learn things utterly unrelated to your chosen craft. In Romania most traditional craftspeople were simply outside of the system. In Germany the guilds are much stronger and anyone setting up business that is not in the guild is liable to prosecution.

The question is does this system benefit the craftspeople and does it benefit the buyers of craft? Certainly wages are protected within the union though there is considerable expense starting with the nearly £10,000 to gain your master qualification, effectively buying into the club. Quality is presumably better under such a system though value for money may not be since the customer pays for this huge infrastructure.

Back in the UK the National Heritage Training Group have succeeded in getting qualifications through in the building crafts where soon it will be a requirement to have a card showing that you are suitably qualified before you are allowed to undertake repair work to a listed building. I talked this week to blacksmiths setting up a scheme here NHIG at the moment any metal bender and welder can undertake “restoration” work on complex old ironwork which really requires specialist skills. The idea of NHTG and NHIG is to make these trades like gas fitting where you can not do certain types of specialist work without being a fully signed up card carrying member.

So looking at pros and cons of the current system where anyone can set up in business we very much have the onus on the customer to ascertain the quality of the worker and I would argue that it is in part down to the worker to help the customer by clearly showing the quality of work we are capable of, there is always the danger that a poor craftsman but good salesman can pull the wool over customers eyes. There is certainly a wide range skill levels out there to choose from. I have seen many professional craftspeople producing embarrassingly poor quality work, some of it selling to seemingly happy customers who were as unaware of the lack of quality as the craftsperson that made it. There is also incredible quality work made by folk with 20 years dedicated experience which is a joy to find.

The benefit of the current UK system is that it is very, very good for small sole trader businesses to run with low start up costs, low overheads and compared to our friends abroad low regulation. Sole traders are the mainstay of craft business, the building crafts are an exception where larger companies are more common, but within the smaller crafts the vast majority are sole traders or less than 5 employees.

Accreditation can take two forms either like the German system or the NHTG system it can be backed by law and mandatory, or like the organic food system it can be optional and left to customer choice. The problem with the latter is it takes a huge input to advertise a scheme sufficiently before customers understand the difference and choose an accredited system over another. Looking at the food sector we have freedom foods, organic, LEAF and all manner of other more minor schemes all having overheads and no benefit to customer or producer until they are widely recognised and understood, 

I am not sure there is a good answer to this one. Would you like to see some sort of training and accreditation system or do your customers know the value of work without having someone else say it is OK?

3 Responses to the pros and cons of accredited training systems in craft

  1. Tico February 8, 2010 at 2:16 pm #

    This is a daunting but important question. As one of a legion of woodworkers who turned pro with little behind me but enthusiasm, an eager and open mind, and a strong, untested back, I feel fortunate that I could do what I wanted to do. America values the individual's right above all else, it seems. And yet, the public, including those with deep pockets, really are amazingly ignorant of quality, at least what I perceive to be quality, and I am surprised and discouraged by how insensitive and bull-headed a lot of fellow woodworkers are about taking time in their work to do things that guild-trained workers would take as a given. In addition, I feel that in my own case I have significant gaps in my overall woodworking skill area that an apprenticeship would have filled in.The most significant part of this debate, in my mind, is whether innovation and fresh thinking is stifled by the guild paradigm. Think of modern masters like Sam Maloof, Art Carpenter, George Nakashima, who never went through traditional apprenticeships (architecture school, though in GN's case)and brought important work into the world.

  2. Le Loup February 9, 2010 at 2:26 am #

    Great video, I love it, and it finishes with one of the most important skills of all.Le Loup.

  3. Andy January 9, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    I don't know if this is relivent but for a young school lever the big wide world of woodworking can be very daunting . I have always felt I'm not teaching them just craft skills but life coaching as well ,as a state of mind and soul plays a big part of what we do. Your true skill and personality will only grow after your first 3yrs as an apprentice. After this the quest and hunger for greater things is the unknown. Some stay on the path and some wander off .The next 4yrs is exploring which box your want to be in,so jump in them all. The people you meet along the way will make you make judgements on there skills and yours. This will help you under stand quality when you see or hold it. You will by now understand that this is a journey . Choose your teachers wisely ,learn respect and wisdom will fall into place. An apprentiship is only a start / taster / test .