Thursday, June 13, 2013

Apprenticeships -- Explain That...Please?

Capital and Labor
 A War Never Won, Lost or Openly Declared.
And in the Middle: The Waning World of the Apprentice...
And Closer to Home: Farriery Apprentices in America; Just What in the Hell is That?
[Note: Before any discussion on apprenticeships in America can take place, it is important to have a rudimentary understanding of two issues unique to this country: 1) the always thorny role of capital/labor relations in this country and 2), the role of politics in the world's first wholly capitalistic nation.  I would also refer you to another post on my other blog:  "Guilds, Corporations and Let's Plan an Apocalypse Later."]   

"Know all men that I, Thomas Millard, with the Consent of Henry Wolcott of Windsor unto whose custody and care at whose charge I was brought over out of England into New England, doe bynd myself as an apprentise for eight yeeres to serve William Pynchon of Springfield, his heirs and assigns in all manner of lawful employmt unto the full ext of eight yeeres beginninge the 29 day of Sept 1640. And the said William doth condition to find the said Thomas meat drinke & clothing fitting such an apprentise & at the end of this tyme one new sute of apparell and forty shillings in mony: subscribed this 28 October 1640."  

Oh, by the way, he got screwed out of the forty schillings....

"One major concern of the guilds was to prevent unrestricted trade entry and thus apprenticeship became the object of much regulation. Epstein (1998), however, argues that monopoly or rent-seeking activity (the deliberate production of scarcity) was only incidental to the guilds' primary interest in supplying skilled workmen. To the extent that guilds successfully regulated apprenticeship in Britain, that pattern was less readily replicated in the Americas whose colonists came to exploit the bounty of natural resources under mercantilistic proscriptions that forbade most forms of manufacturing. The result was an agrarian society practically devoid of large towns and guilds. Absent these entities, the regulation of apprenticeship relied upon government actions that appear to have been become more pronounced towards the mid-eighteenth century. The passage of Britain's 1563 Statute of Artificers involved government regulation in the Old World as well. However, as Davies (1956) shows, English apprenticeship was different in that craft guilds and their attendant traditions were more significant."  Daniel Jacoby, University of Washington

Two recent events triggered this posting; one personal, the other concerning the recently released Ofsted Report, concerning what was seen as very serious deficiencies in the training regimen overseen by the National Farrier Training Agency and its various providers.  That report has resulted in the temporary public de-funding of the apprenticeship system in the UK.  The problems within NFTA are complex, divisive and not completely understood by an American observer, but on the surface they appear to be remedial in nature.  However, they do point to a number of issues experienced by those seeking an apprentice-type relationship within the United States.  And perhaps more relevant -- the reality that both farriery and any adjunct apprenticeship arrangement offered here -- has no legal joinery to justify its existence.  Farriers are classified by the US Department of Labor as "casual farm workers" and any and all apprenticeship opportunities in this country are normally conducted under government/private sector internships or within the development programs of recognized labor unions.  As such, all arrangements are both regulated AND subject to existing state and US labor laws.  More on that later...

Livery: Worshipful Company of

First, the Ofsted Report:  I had actually decided at one point to leave this topic alone...hell, it is not my backyard, so why bother?  However, it does relate to the business climate of farriery here, and as a piggy-back issue, the assault on the UK's Registration Act by those known euphemistically as the 'barefoot crowd.'  It is a case really of one nation moving away from a regulatory climate and another nation that really needs to look more seriously at protective regulation for its practitioners.  And yes, that is a personal opinion.

In a previous blog, I outlined the rise and fall of the European craft guilds and their ultimate destruction in the new America.  Some guilds, like The Worshipful Company of Farriers continued to function, but without the political clout of previous centuries -- more of a social companion to the regulatory agencies dominated by the government, aka, the will of the populace. However, like the fate of the International Union of Journeymen Horseshoers (IUJH) here, abuses, inefficiencies, quality of the product -- are the fall-out when a climate of prolonged complacency is dominating the discussion.  The short version:


Conclusions of the Ofsted Report:

1. Progress is too slow for just over half the apprentices and they fail to complete within the planned timescale. Apprentices aged 19 to 24 do poorly compared to the younger apprentices.

2. Whilst apprentices training with caring and interested approved training farriers (ATFs) enjoy their training those working with poor ATFs often have a difficult and poor experience of the training programme.

3. Assessment of apprentices’ practical skills and coursework does not happen often enough and the feedback apprentices receive on their work is often late and unhelpful.

4. College trainers make too many apprentices repeat the six monthly blocks of college training and the reasons are not always fair or in the apprentices’ best interests.

5. Apprentices report significant examples of bullying, abuse and humiliation by ATFs, and in a very small minority of cases by college trainers, which have not been identified or dealt with appropriately by the NFTA. Apprentices’ interests and needs are not at the heart of the training and in too many cases they are anxious to speak out against poor treatment since they do not think they will be believed or that the NFTA will support them.

6. NFTA has not estimated current and future needs for qualified farriers and it is not clear whether the country is under or over producing farriers, or the extent of employment and business opportunities for farriers when they complete their training.

Given the broad-brush assessment here, one can only conclude that the teachers are in need of some teaching.  And while I do not know the details (someone jump in here if you like), my assumption is that NFTA trainers are government subsidized for including ATF's within their business structure -- compensation/income that is derived from both government sources and the added generation to the business itself.  However the incentives may run -- uphill or down, the object of teaching is to teach; this mission secondary to the business pressures (productivity) that might be incurred.  If that is the case, then the system could be seen as archaic, inefficient and perhaps redundant as to cause and effect.  Fix it.  Structural problems are addressed by checking the foundation first, not last.

Secondly, students enter the educational system to improve their self-esteem, not have it pissed away by those who have apparently forgotten their own history, their own early aspirations.  If the instructors are overburdened by administrative demands, unrealistic expectations and a lack of logistical/administrative support -- then put the paper pushers and bean counters on notice.  My experience with all such technical/community college type models is that the shop is a long way from management's private lunch room.  Teaching requires love, patience...a bushel-full of humor.  That means time, and while time is often equated with money -- it should absolutely not dictate the quality of the education, nor contribute to the frustration and disgust of those assigned to carry out such an important and fundamental task.  So often it is the system that creates the heretic, then wants to burn him at the stake.

A few other observations on this report:  1) I am not positive of the background of those who administer or oversee NFTA.  If they are farriers, move them to an advisory capacity and hire a program manager. I made the same recommendation to the AFA in this country.  Hire a used-car salesman as Managing Director. The job is to sell the association, the idea.  Farriery is secondary to that goal.  2) Hold a very frank, open conversation with the instructors in an environment without the possibility of recrimination.  If. as it appears, they are burned out, find out why. 3) Consider a re-structure of the entire program.  It is quite possible that it is too long, too scattered...perhaps obsolete in the 21st century.  And find out what students want today and address those issues within a new structure.  Find out why those 19-24-year old's do poorly...I could answer that question over a cup of coffee. 

Okay...enough on the issues in the UK; 
 America is even more difficult:

"Annually there are nearly one-half million registered apprentices in training in American industry. They are learning under the guidance of experienced craft workers in such skilled occupations as computer operator, machinist, bricklayer, dental laboratory technician, tool and dye maker, electrician, drafter, electronic technician, operating engineer, maintenance mechanic, and many more. Management, labor, and government work together to promote apprenticeship and to develop sound standards for its practice. In many communities, joint management-labor apprenticeship committees conduct and supervise the local programs."

Key words:  management-labor [committees] supervise. That means outside oversight, which in the UK's case of late -- failed miserably.  In the US, no such supervision, oversight or protection exists for those who wish to apprentice to a practicing farrier.  Which begs the question: Why not?  The US has had a national association (trade group) of/for farriers for some 30 years.  And so far they have managed to implement....and don't say certification. That was initiated within 3 years of incorporation.  What about the other 27 years?   Yes, the question is rhetorical and aimed at America's farriers -- not the AFA.  An organization merely mimics the temper OR temerity of its membership.       
As I stated earlier, the US has no regulated system of education, apprenticeships...nothing really as either regulatory or protective in the business of farriery.  An apprentice in an unregulated system has no rights, no set working conditions and no recourse if abused, harassed or injured.  It is medieval really, as it is currently conducted in this nation.  And that is not a negative, just a fact.  If one is given no rights under existing law, then they basically have no way to define or seek compensation through the legal system.  And guess what?  The Master, the Boss...the head farrier honcho...well, you're in the same boat partner.  It is a system based on good-faith and wishful thinking.  What if an apprentice is injured, perhaps killed in this free-wheeling system?  When pondering that unpleasant scenario, also consider why the United States currently has 1,143,358 attorneys plying their craft here.

[2007 figures]

"Many U.S. industries maintain thriving apprenticeship programs. These programs can be found in the skilled trades and crafts, notably in occupations related to the construction industry. Indeed, in many states, apprenticeship programs are required to obtain occupational licensing or certification. The United States does not currently maintain a national apprenticeship program. The U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, maintains a registry of apprenticeship programs and the occupations that are covered throughout the country. [Note:  If farriery does not exist as a recognized occupation, then....what?  Why hasn't the US Department of Labor been petitioned by an organization such as the AFA for inclusion as a recognized trade?  1) The existing membership would probably object, and 2) it is doubtful that the AFA could even offer a statistical or economic appraisal of this 'thing' they seek to represent.]

Apprenticeship programs may be sponsored by individual employers, a group of employers, or a union. Trade and other nonprofit organizations also sponsor apprenticeship programs within certain industries. Unions and employers often form joint apprenticeship committees to administer the programs. Such committees are concerned with determining an industry's particular needs and developing standards for the apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeship programs are usually registered with the federal or state government to ensure that the programs meet standards relating to job duties, instruction, wages, and safety and health conditions."

How did this come to be?  Much had to do with the destruction of guild system when it showed up in America.  Laissez-faire capitalism was the new model of American business, any power held by the artisans was usurped by the new mercantile class.  The Civil War (once again), also played into this evolving socio-economic mélange, for the 13th Amendment not only addressed the issues of slavery, but those seemingly engaged by 'indentured servitude.'  This made line between 'voluntary' and involuntary' servitude fuzzy indeed.  "The courts determined that the labor contracts gave [Masters] unusual authority over apprentices.  Both age [of apprentices] and length of apprenticeships made the arrangement vulnerable to abuse."  Jacoby

As America entered the industrial age, two issues dominated the business environment:  a competition over 'human capital' and the needs inherent to mass production.  However, this actually split labor rather than presenting a cohesive front against capital interests, for the employers merely took the apprenticeship system in-house -- this, in an effort to lock out labor unions. Thus in reality, a return to the old guild system of controlling the means of education and training.  But like today in some cases, these apprentices merely became the another cog in capital's machinery.  We see this today in many apprenticeships offered to aspiring farriers -- the goal being higher and more profitable production, not the teaching of more advanced skills.  Why?  Suspicions of course...the old guild mentality of stealing secrets, luring clients away...perhaps even exceeding the Master's own comfort level in his/her work.. And very importantly, many apprentices today are better educated than their predecessors, perhaps even the Boss.  They come with communication skills, business plans -- a clear idea on where they want to go and how fast they want to get there.  And like the courts decided a century ago...under these unstructured arrangements, far from any regulatory control...yes, abuses are common, and for all the same reasons as the Ofstead report emphasized.  An apprentice is normally idealistic, enthusiastic, a little naïve perhaps, but very vulnerable.  In many ways like all students...a hostage to learning. 

As one apprentice put it:  "I am beginning to believe that highly motivated and smart young farriers are being pushed out of the trade because they are disgusted with the way they are treated  and the amount of bashing that goes on.  The only ones who will stay are those who embrace the same behavior and attitudes."   Yes.  In my own experience, going back to 1972, it was the same case of inheriting the attitudes and poor business practices of the previous generation.  Because that was how you attempted to fit in, be one of the 'boys' in a very hostile and suspicious business.  But in so many ways it was really like trying to find mutual respect at the insane asylum -- the doors are locked for a good reason.

Organization has helped in this country, but it remains in many ways a hollow effort.  Our educational systems are many and varied...most privately held.  Students are locked out of conventional loan systems for the most part, and few schools teach even rudimentary business, marketing or communication skills. Sure, you can shoe a horse, but can you sell yourself to the client, the trainer...the bank?  The British system is smarter by demanding general education courses as an adjunct to shop skills -- something that needs to occur here.  It would much better serve our students, clients and our legacy by seeking to establish an educational standard, rather than a system of self-certification that beyond a sense of personal pride -- means absolutely nothing in the real world, particularly when it has never been promoted to the end-user: the customer.  A 2-year course, with a somewhat standardized curriculum is a good start.  High school diploma or GED required, general education and elective classes both offered and demanded.  Realistically structured toward the end-goal:  a farrier running a business.  And a system to subsidize a truly shared apprenticeship program.

The hurdles?  Immense.  Welcome back to the Civil War.  By never settling the core issue: state's rights, we still have 50 separate sets of regulatory agencies.  And we have some of the strongest labor laws in the world.  And those laws are hard-wired into our taxation system.  Add to this the fact that at least 60% of all farriers are one kind of outlier or another.  And that is not a disparaging remark -- simply an acknowledgement of why many of us got into this business -- myself included.  Except that I came to realize that the real world, corrupt as it is, shares little interest in my desire to live in the woods like a bear.  But the next generation is not likely to share that viewpoint.  So the question remains as to what our legacy will really mean.  Business as usual, or progressive and ground breaking?  Or will outsiders make that choice for us.

But it still leaves us with some choices, albeit hard ones. As it currently stands, in most states of the union, having an apprentice (by definition) in this trade is illegal.  A violation of licensing law, labor law and more than likely the tax code.  An employee is entitled to protection under the law.  That means on-the-job insurance (Workmen's Comp), a safe working environment, a non-harassment policy, guaranteed hours, breaks and medical leave, SS and income tax deductions...sort of a Human Resources Department created by mutual consent.  But then, the Boss can't even afford that luxury -- which is a whole different can of worms.  My solution, under the laws of the state of Washington was to make my apprentices, helpers...however I defined them -- sub-contractors.  Each was required to obtain their own business license and bill me for their services.  That also meant that they were legally responsible for their own taxes, their own insurance...just like this Boss.  I, in turn, carried the liability for what they did or failed to do.  Yes, it limited my exposure to litigation while still offering an opportunity for learning while lessening my personal work load -- because if the Boss goes down, the ship flounders with it.  And like most things in life, this decision was a compromise based on a collection of available choices -- none of which that seemed too attractive at the time. 

Some of you may wonder why any of this matters.  The honest answer is that it doesn't matter, until you reach that point in life or business where you have a lot to lose.  That's the money side of the equation.  The other side is purely human.  It is quite true that many see this trade as a lifestyle more than a business -- a rare thing to hold nowadays.  But with it comes a degree of responsibility all the same -- sure, to family, to friends -- and to those who follow on the coattails of what may have been your own early aspirations.  And that means respect, fair play and honest communication.  Yeah, the apprentice deserves that too.  And the opportunity to really learn this business via an honest and open dialogue.  And they deserve the protection afforded every worker in this country -- and legal recourse if that fails to happen.   Much to consider here....perhaps much to be done.  There are elephants in the room is time to find out why.

A. Allan Juell 


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