Gaining Experience


Hi Paul,

I’ve invested financially and time wise in gaining training for joinery and bench work but need the ongoing experiencer to carry me through to become an experienced craftsman. I have tried to find a place I can work with a qualified craftsman but no one seems willing to take me on, even without being paid and going in on a voluntary basis. Do you know of anyone or anywhere I can get the extra experience through an organisation, an individual  or something?



Short question, long answer.

It’s a dilemma I see frequently enough, John. The issues are varied. Most people believe that college courses give the best start when the most reliable training is side by side with a skilled craftsman. Apprenticeship to has lost its meaning so you’d best make certain what you define is the same as others. Not all apprenticeships are what we might recognise today as being actual apprenticeships.

Employers, governments, colleges, schools and politicians bandy the word around to mean any and all training when in most cases it is a means of controlling issues such as common sense health and safety, qualifications  and much more. Often this can result in all manner of unwanted governance in your workplace depending on the region, state and country in which you live and work. The term apprenticeship is quite different than it was in times past—apprenticeships and apprenticing I mean. Apprenticing was at one time simply a formal or informal agreement between a skilled crafting artisan or indeed a company employing such and an unskilled person seeking to become his or her apprentice. Parents would have at one time paid a master to take on their young adult for a number of years in-training so that at the end of say seven years (depending on the era, country etc) the person was fully skilled and able to work competently at their craft. It’s a funny thing that people, parents and students, will willingly pay/go into long term debt to the tune of £30-60,000 to gain a degree that they actually might or even mostly never use to even do a job as their future work yet would not pay a company to train them to specific work. It makes good sense for someone to take their degree money and offer it to an employer to take them on—at the end of two or three years they might well have worked themselves into a job.

Your year in college, as you have already learned, is more the qualifier that you have the NVQ (A UK work-based qualification issued by a governing authority or entity.) needed to work. Government support by any measure will always mean work-place visits by entities to check out progress of both you and your employer or trainer too. This is an interference and even though perhaps valid at some level, it interferes and it does interrupt good work practice and productivity.

Work experience is naturally much much broader than the college can provide in the artificial conditions and environs of college structures and this is what colleges in general cannot give you. Often the NVQ ties in with work and the workplace an apprentice might work and train in; really putting flesh on the bones as it were, real working conditions. Thankfully you can gain the real qualification in Britain of just going to work with someone like myself. So far, those I have taken on as apprentices through the past 30 years have never actually used the degrees they had for anything in terms of gaining a job or being qualified for it. I would never take them on because they had a degree, only because they showed a passionate interest in learning with me. On the other hand, others that work for us do have degrees that well equip them for their work. So, all things considered, it seems that craft training would, if possible, best come one on one as in times past. It seems that college may well deal with things that should have been taken care of in school. You know, maths and English, social studies and such.

Another thing that adds difficulty these days occurs because there are so few small companies available to offer apprenticeships. Many companies, small entities and one-man-bands, simply cannot afford an apprentice even if an apprentice volunteers to work for no pay. This might be construed as slave labour these days. It might be seen as your taking advantage of an individual if you are in the position of business owner. The truth is this. Even if you do not pay an apprentice you have added liabilities. How do you insure for someone not working for you in your dangerous machine shop? How does an apprentice make up for your lost time training them. My experience proves that I am about 50% efficient if I have an apprentice working with me. In times past the ratio might have been one apprentice per 5-10 craftsmen. The company could absorb the costs of an apprentice, which ensured they had  a skilled work force through ongoing training. I use the maxim, ‘One apprentice makes a craftsman 50% less efficient, two apprentices 100% unproductive.’ Of course that is something of an exaggeration, mostly, but it is not too far from true because on my own I can indeed do the whole job myself without the interruptions. Of course we, in our goodwill and ambition to help, look beyond the first year to the year when we can indeed start to allocate work to a productive trained person.

The idea of taking on an apprentice is to train someone to work inside your labour force. It is always a costly investment. Often people who want to train today want not to work for someone else but to gain the training and experience so they can then go on to establish themselves in their own independent business. At first they are grateful for the opportunity to train, but it is common for an apprentice, after receiving enough training to be somewhat skilled, to leave and set up in competition with their former employer. They, during their time in employment as an apprentice, had access to everything they needed to establish themselves—estimating jobs,  using the same suppliers and so on. They underbid jobs to get the much needed work, even, as in my case on three occasions, steal your designs, customers and sometimes materials as they set themselves up. This has had an impact on small businesses and cannot just be ignored. This then begs the question, why would anyone take on an apprentice if there is no ultimate return on the investment?


  1. Free labor if managed correctly, The wonderful feeling one gets when you know you’ve done something good for a fellow human being, commonrotery, and you have a part of you that carries on long after your gone from this world.
    That’s just a few reasons I can think of without given it much thought. But then again why on earth would someone do that when they can get someone to pay them to teach the trade. It’s all about money. I wonder what good all that money will do for one when they are pushing up dasies.. But not to fret none, subscribe to Pauls Masterclass site buy a few tools , get some good reading material and go to work. In no time you will be making some beautiful projects all by yourself. To be honest Paul has an apprenticeship program right here online and it’s affordable for anyone. and you don’t get yelled at for making mistakes. Lol.
    Practice, fail, Practice, fail, Practice fail again, and before you know it something good will happen and you can say to yourself I made that through hard work and persistence . The best feeling in the world. Just a thought…

    1. I sure made a big mistake today. Cutting a dovetail and cut two tails instead of a pin and a tail. Very glad my apprenticeship with Mr. Sellers is of the online type because I probably would have been dismissed from my apprenticeship otherwise ?

      1. Try doing it in front of an audience of 500 and on camera, magnifying the happening 50 times on a screen 20 feet wide.

        1. Has that happened to you Paul? Personally I love it when things go a bit wrong because then we get to see the remedy. Watching how you approach different grain types is a good example. Learning about steaming out dents with an iron is another.

  2. Taking on an apprentice does seem poisonous. You could have non-competes signed and so on, but then that would inject legal duties into your life. Not that I would ever have to consider an apprentice, but I do see the danger.

  3. It takes about 5 years for a newly minted engineer to become a productive asset to the company. I expect almost every profession is the same. That’s why it is a profession and not a hobby. You get paid for the mistakes you avoid. Starting out you do not have the experience to avoid mistakes nor do you even know to ask the right question. It takes intense oversight to keep them out of the ditch. That said, I was given a break and continue to return the favor the favor by mentoring. To the young man’s question, if you have a passion for what you do, you will figure out how to teach yourself and or get training from others. Don’t expect that something will be given to you for free. You have to earn it and prove your value. Working nights and weekends to further what you will do as a profession for 50 years is a small price to pay. Go the extra mile to make sure that even as an intern or apprentice that you are an asset. Sweep the floor, organize a bench or work area. Do a lot of things just to show your instructor you care and are excited to have this opportunity.

  4. There is a man that does not live too far away from me. He is a craftsman and has made some furniture for the Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville. I asked him if he would consider some kind of apprenticeship where I work on my off hours for free. I really did not care if it was stacking wood and sharpening tools. The short answer was no. I do understand his point of view and it was similar to Paul’s. It was a disappointment in a way. We are pretty close to being debt free and I am looking for a change.

  5. What struck me in this was Paul’s comment about throwing thousands of Pounds or Dollars at a degree course, the qualification of which will never be used in one’s professional career, instead of investing that money in a trade. It is quite an argument against the present education system.
    I come from an ere when apprenticeships were still available but I had no inkling what I really wanted to do when I left school in the early eighties. How I wish I had taken advantage of those opportunities now.

  6. Hi Paul,
    A good friend of mine is a craftsman and works by himself in the United States. One day we were talking about government paperwork. It’s substantial. If he hires just one employee, the paperwork and legal requirements (as you correctly mentioned as common sense safety and health) goes up substantially to the point where it is too much for him (he already works 6+ days a week). As such, he doesn’t hire anyone.

    I really like your point about paying the artisan for them taking you on as an apprentice. It helps make it more bearable. It solves lots of problems for all involved.

    I studied in the sciences at the graduate level. It took around 6 years to graduate. Learning how to work in a lab (vs. the class lecture) and conduct the research is similar to what you describe above. The first few years we definitely decreased productivity. By the middle, we were probably neutral and could help ease the burden of the group by helping some of the new members in some areas. By the end/last two years, we were very productive and it was these last two years that were the payoff to the professor and group.

    1. I had a professor in grad school who said “I’ll take you on as a student if you give me 7 years. For your first 2 years you are taking classes, the next 2 years you don’t have the skills top be very useful, so I’m only getting 3 years of value. Once you complete your 7 years I will ensure a quality post-doc and a big boost to your career”. I suspect this formula is similar in any profession. The successful professor sets up an assembly line where post-docs train senior students and senior students train junior students.

      That said, in the sciences cost of grad. students is covered by grants from the government. Can craftspeople build apprentice costs into grants/endowments?

      But always remember one prof. told me he had a robot climbing down inside a volcano and it got stuck, so they sent the grad students down to get it. After that they realized it was faster, better, cheaper just to send the grad students into the volcano :-).

  7. Mr Sellers,
    You are spot on in your observations. I don’t know about Britain, but here in North America post secondary education has devolved into what cannot be otherwise described as indoctrination. Any actual instruction that occurs is really of a remedial nature, teaching what should have been taught in the high school.

    It is rare to find a fresh college graduate today who has any real knowledge of the world or the skills to cope. Any organization employing such individuals will likely invest 5 years teaching the truly needed skills and disabusing them of the kooky notions learned in the hallowed Halls of academia.

  8. I wonder if there is not a missed opportunity here. I think it is fair to say that the obscene costs of university educations in the UK and North America are such that many students opt for a degree purely to get the most for their money.
    I was discussing this with a colleague today and she said that an undergraduate degree from a Canadian university has lost so much of its value because once graduated you are competing with so many other people with the same qualification. In order to get ahead you have to have a masters.
    In other parts of Europe, Scandinavia specifically, education is largely free so if you do want to change your career path later in life you can do so with a minimum of financial penalty.
    If they can do this in Norway why not elsewhere? Priorities?
    My Mother used to talk about the education system in the UK in the forties. The eleven plus exam streamed students into paths to higher education for those academically gifted and into trade schools for those less so. It was something of a blunt instrument but at least it ensured that there would be a supply of tradesmen and women available rather than degree qualified bar and restaurant staff and shop assistants as we have now.
    Surely a proper system of education would cater to all people and allow them to be trained in whatever trade or profession they desire as long as they have an interest and an aptitude, whatever their age.

    1. Here in Russia education is still mostly free. As a result of this, we have hordes of lawyers and economists graduating every year, and every single one of them knows that they probably won’t ever get a job in their chosen area, and they’re getting a diploma simply because every employer expects them to have one.

      Even with free education, almost no one wants to get education to learn a real trade. Everyone wants to take their chance and climb the most profitable path, even if the odds of succeeding are astronomically low and they’ll end up earning minimal wage as a burger flipper in Mc’D.

      While I understand that the same problem persists with paid education, it’s much worse when education’s free, because people tend to think of it as a free lottery.

      1. Getting a job when qualified only by a degree seems in many cases to postpone realities from taking place for three years. Politicians seem always confident that they somehow have rights over young people, education, jobs and now apprenticeships. Mostly they seem to me more products of the system they were raised by and couldn’t get a working life beyond being articulate and manipulative. Just my thoughts. They seem always apt to plonk themselves before the electorate who feel disempowered 11 months of the year and listen to be persuaded for one month on average before an election comes in. How short is the memory of the electorate and how dispiriting to think some 90% of politicians (in Britain at least) are so dishonest! If politicians were prosecuted for lies we’d have none left I suppose because even if they had the choice or self control not to lie one would pop up somewhere through reconstructive memory or some such thing.

        1. My opinion in the USA is 99% of the politicians are corrupt and dishonest. I have learned more watching your Master Classes then any School could teach me.

        2. Politicians the world over are, like most people, more concerned over their careers than doing their job well. As a result they often do what sounds impressive even if it have no good effect on the populace. What they don’t want the electorate to find out is that we don’t really need them in our lives.

  9. So far as I could see John’s original question was not answered. The article covered the barriers to getting the training he needs, but no positive suggestions about how to proceed.

  10. I count myself lucky to have gone through a craft apprentiship scheme with a large company in the 1970’s UK. It was very thorough and after the first year in which all apprentices no matter what field they were going to (technical or craft) had to do basic training in the apprentice training school, we all ended up in the relevant departments (in my case the plant department that looked after the factory maintenance) where it was on-the-job training with a qualified craftsman
    (Electrician) for the next 4 years. I spent the following 4 years working with all the electricians in that department. We had one day a week (day release) to attend the local college of further education where we studied for the relevant City & Guilds levels. Running in parallel was the EITB (Engineering Industry Training Board) scheme who issued log books and lists of particular skills that had to be accomplished. The log books were in effect homework and these were scrutinised and signed off by the local manager or electrical foreman. If the company couldn’t provide any particular skill experience then arrangements could be made for an apprentice to go to another company (that were also in the scheme) and they would provide the missing skills experience.
    I know for a fact that the company that I worked for did receive government subsidies to encourage the taking on of apprentices. At the end of it all and if we were deemed suitable we might then be offered a position in the company.
    I now live in Ireland and no such schemes exists. There are training establishments mostly only in major cities where trainees are given a very much shorter time to gain both practical and theoretical skills before these young people are told to go out and find on-the-job experience for a few years (not sure how many years are stipulated) to earn their “National Craft Certificate”. Many of them are finding it hard to get a position just like John in the U.K. because there is no help available to self employed craftsmen from the government to encourage the taking on of apprentices. If I took on an apprentice I would double my public liability insurance premium, I would need to pay PRSI contributions (equivalent to national insurance in the U.K.) on behalf of my employee as well as his/her wages. This is to say nothing of statute holiday (vacation) pay. Holidays? When I go on holiday I simply stop earning. I simply couldn’t justify taking on an apprentice for purely financial reasons.
    I think John should keep plugging away at all the joinery and carpentry business’s that he can find in the hope that someone will take him on. He should be prepared to travel or even move if he gets an offer. Perhaps after following Paul’s projects and producing some of the finished items, John might consider bringing some of these along to show first hand his ability or potential ability.

    1. I know I am biased for what I teach, but if someone really threw themselves into what and how we teach they would at the end of a year have about the best training in woodworking they would need and, if they did any basic machining course of a week or two’s duration they would have everything they need to persuade a company that they would have something to offer. Over weekends and evenings they would develop skills and projects and also have 20-30 projects to show their skill levels to a would be boss and I know I for one, if I were such a company, would take them on just for showing initiative. I worry at the large percentage of young people and colleges who think they should be handed work on a silver platter sometimes. Not all, just some. I recall a young woman telling me she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t get a job after a year and a half because she was on the cutting edge of ability. I said why do you think that’s where you are? She said because I have a degree I slogged for for three years. Ah! I said. Now I see the problem. You think you are qualified by having a degree and therefor don’t understand. The company you worked for doesn’t truly need your degree, they need someone they can teach about their business. You know, to work according to their requirements. You’re not actually qualified to work for them yet. She got it, changed her point of view, got a job and now enjoys having been trained to work at her job. Simple really. Of course that’s not always the case. There are many jobs requiring high level training with degrees to get there. Just not all of them. education is very much a part of the money making factor of the British economy no matter the party. Free education means the tax payer pays, paid for education means the students or family of students pay. Though graduates do end up in debt, they don’t have to pay a penny until they actually earn over £21,000.You only start repaying your loan once you’ve graduated and you’re earning more than £21,000 a year. After that, you’ll pay back 9% of anything you earn over £21,000. So if you’re earning £26,000 a year, you’ll lose £450 in loan repayments – £37.50 each month. If your earnings drop below £21,000, your repayments will stop.

      Unless you’re self-employed, your repayments will be taken straight out of your pay before it gets to you. You’ll be able to see how much you’re repaying on your pay slip, and you’ll be sent your balance on a regular basis so you can see how much you have to repay.

      If you’re on a part-time course, you’ll start repaying four years after the start of your course – but still only if you’re earning more than £21,000.

      At least I think this is still right!

      Yup! There will be interest on your loan, but how much depends on what you earn. If you’re earning £21,000 or less, the interest will just be at the rate of inflation. This rises steadily as you earn more, up to an extra 3% if you earn £41,000 a year or more.

      However, this won’t affect how much you repay each month – it will just mean you’ll keep repaying for longer.

      Phew! If you’re interested.

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