What does apprenticeship mean? why I pay £10 an hour

I am often asked about apprenticeships in craft and want to share some thoughts and experiences.

To many the word apprenticeship conjures a picture of a young person working for several years alongside someone with a skill, slowly learning the trade themselves. Some of the most amazing people I have met are folk that went through traditional engineering apprenticeship, they just understand how to handle materials and manipulate them in all sorts of ways. They understand what tolerances things need to be made to for particular jobs and how to work to  tolerances of a fraction of a mm when needed. The apprentice would start on a low wage which would gradually increase as they became more useful. At the Heritage Crafts Association’s annual conference we heard wheelwright Greg Rowland talk about his experience taking on just such an apprentice. In the first year his business turnover went down 20% because of the time he had to devote to training. In the second year his turnover was still down but now only by 15% and after the third year his turnover was up by 40%. This gives a fair impression of the impact on a business of taking on an apprentice. 

Apprenticeship today in the UK has generally come to mean something quite different. Apprenticeship is still about young people supposedly learning on the job but the largest single apprenticeship employer is McDonalds who take on nearly 10,000 government subsidised “apprentices” each year. In the first year of an apprenticeship the “trainee” can be paid as little as £3.50 an hour. At the end of a weeks work that would give them about £100 out of which they have got to travel to work, clothe themselves and feed and house themselves. Even if they are living at home they are still not going to have much of a social life. So when you hear the government talking about having created half a million new apprenticeships a year, don’t imagine old fashioned engineering apprenticeships learning fantastic skills for life, picture instead someone working somewhere like McDonalds for £3.50 an hour.

Through my work with the Heritage Crafts Association we tried hard to work with Government to set up an apprenticeship scheme that would enable genuinely skilled craftspeople to pass their skills on to the next generation but the training that takes place in the workshop is not recognised as valuable training, everything that happens in the workshop is perceived as work that needs to be paid b the employer. It is only the day release work they do at college which is regarded as training for which there are government subsidies (£1500 a year) to cover.

Anyway back to my own situation. This is my “apprentice” Zak.

I remember talking with Saddler Frank Baines who has had a lifetime of training apprentices. He told me to avoid folk who wanted to come from the other end of the country to work with you because they were passionate about the craft. They would stay just for two years or so until they had learnt what they needed then they would be off to set up their own business. If you look at Greg Rowland’s experience that is a serious drain on the viability of the business. Instead Frank told me just take on some local lad that wants a job, they will learn to love the craft, it comes naturally. So Zak lives in the village and is good friends with my son. He started helping me pack mail order parcels in the run up to Christmas 2 1/2 year ago. We got on well and he fancied having a go at helping me with my toolmaking so I stated to teach him. By the following May I took him on full time. I looked at the various “apprentice” schemes but frankly they appear to be just ways of massaging unemployment figures, getting people off the dole and into very very low paid work. I could not bring myself to employ anyone at £3.50  Zak started on £7 an hour with holiday pay and sick pay.

We had two other speakers at the HCA conference Lisa Hammond and her apprentice Florian Gadsby. Florian told of how when he started throwing pots Lisa would look at a board of 20 and pick out 2 that were good enough and the rest went back in the pug mill. So it was when Zak started grinding knives. Out of each batch of 20 there would be 3 or 4 that could be sold and a lot of seconds. We don’t have a pug mill and the blade blanks cost several pounds each so it’s a potentially expensive game learning to grind properly.

Anyway fast forward to the present and Zak is now an extremely competent grinder. We just did his second annual review and raised his wages again to £10 an hour. He is now really contributing to the profitability of the business but he is still learning a lot. He has recently finished the first batch of knives that he made entirely himself from taking the rough blank and forging the bend, grinding, honing and polishing and fitting the handle. On Monday he spent the day helping Brian Alcock the last full time self employed grinder in Sheffield who grinds all our axes. It gives me huge pleasure to see a 20 year old sat alongside a 65 year old with the skills being passed down.


9 Responses to What does apprenticeship mean? why I pay £10 an hour

  1. jane mickelborough May 17, 2017 at 12:53 pm #

    how immensely satisfying!

  2. Gav May 17, 2017 at 1:40 pm #

    And hopefully Brian has the opportunity to train a few more apprentices before he retires. A friend of mine, a touch older than Brian wanted to train an apprentice at one stage. He is a mechanical engineer having been apprenticed to two of his seniors and also further trained in the military. He contacted a local government educator asking if they had any suitable candidates and they scoffed and said he wasn’t a ‘proper’ engineering firm being just himself and working from home. I found that to be hilarious when I assisted him with some specific flotation device used in the gas industry which was dimensionally incorrect and had to be made good as it was holding up a project worth conservatively millions of dollars. Life is stranger then fiction, leaving multi nationals to train up the bulk of the workforce is a case in point and using their pay levels as a standard is insulting to anyone who has worked for themselves and appreciates what a dollar or pound really represents. All the best

  3. Charlotte Barnes May 17, 2017 at 1:50 pm #

    Wonderful post, Robin. It is quite possible to run a business without exploiting people and I’m so pleased to see that you’re setting such a great example.

  4. Joe May 17, 2017 at 2:50 pm #

    Great post. Thank you. I wish there was more mention of apprenticeship options was I was in my early teens. I went to career days but it was traditional jobs. I do recall Paul Sellers also talking about taking on an apprentices and rather initial drops in productivity.

    In the sciences there is sort of an apprenticeship as well. When I was in college, I fell in love with organic chemistry. Hard to explain really, it was just all I cared about. I kept finding all sorts of reasons to visit the organic chem prof to ask questions. I had heard through the grapevine I was driving him crazy. I didn’t have the verbal skills to figure out what to say or explain things let alone know what an apprenticeship was. After about three months, he figured it out himself and took me under his wing. I had never been happier and every free moment I had outside of class was spent doing anything he needed doing. 30 plus years later we are still very close. Some of my fondest life memories are during that time learning what was my passion for no pay to then a little pay.

    Now I manage others and no longer get to work with my hands in a lab. I really don’t care for it that much. Had I known how much I had liked working with my hands I would have fought harder to not be promoted. I got into woodworking so I can do skilled things with my hands again.

  5. Kevin Mcnamara May 17, 2017 at 4:00 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more. I wonder how long an apprenticeship at macdonalds lasts? and after the kids will be skilled….what? robots? corporate employees, burger flipers?
    Some of the things kids would learn whilst they’re working for macdonalds would be transferable to other fast food outlets or other repetitive, sequential type jobs.
    but to call it an apprenticeship is a joke.
    when I started in the field of stained class, I was classified as a trainee. if I remember correctly this was because there was not chance to attend college on day release, and there was no recognised body to give out certificates. this was in the 70s. but I was learning a profession. not learning a job. I think there is a difference.
    yet nowadays macdonalds employees (subsidised at that! as if macdonalds or the supermarkets should be supported by the taxpayers). are apprentices!
    well said Robin and well done. you are a fine person and citizen.

  6. Matt McGrane May 17, 2017 at 9:55 pm #

    Who knows how may lives would be different if there was still a larger system of apprenticeship.

  7. Graeme Fraser May 19, 2017 at 12:58 am #

    Wonderful to read, Robin. Immensely heartening!

  8. Emmet Van Driesche May 19, 2017 at 7:16 pm #

    Thanks for this Robin
    I wrestled with what to pay when we decided to take on seasonal help at our Christmas tree farm to help me harvest greens and make wreaths. In the end I decided to pay $20 (about double what most small farms pay) because I wanted to be truly supporting my helpers’ ability to live good lives. And I wanted them to learn to value themselves that much. I worked on farms and ships for years, both poorly paid sorts of jobs, and it took me a long time to feel like I was worth $20/hr.

    The season I employ for is short, just 6 weeks, but this last year I had a girl come back and I was impressed at home much of my shoes she was able to step into. Hopefully I can find someone who will stick around and for whom it fits into their yearly pattern to work for me. While I don’t see a drop in productivity (because I am driving the pace and doing the skilled stuff) I did see a dramatic increase in flexibility on my part being able to leave her in charge while I pursued other things, this second year.

  9. Tom May 28, 2017 at 10:19 am #

    Nice work Robin. There are all kinds of things going on in that arrangement which must be good for everybody. Investment in your apprentice as a genuinely empowered worker and probably a well person. Their ultimate contribution to your business and the local economy.

    It’s a bit of a sick joke for taxpayers to support ‘training’ in a fast food business where I suspect ground level roles are designed to require as little skill as possible.