During covid, my kids had to endure many months of online classroom schooling at home. It gave us parents a closer insight into their schooling and frankly I was horrified at the state of the American education system. I knew it was bad, but we didn’t know how bad it really is. I fear in the near future the United States will fall behind the rest of the world and will struggle to compete in a global economy.
My older son entered high school and I’m fretting increasingly about his future career path. I’m in the process of educating myself on the different career options that are available for young people. I’m a firm believer in the apprenticeship system and I find it sad that somewhere down the road it almost went lost in the United States. Maybe I can present with my experiences another perspective and maybe this might or might not be of interest to you.
I left Switzerland in 1995. I’m sure things probably changed since somewhat. Typically, after 9 years of public school a young person would graduate and pursue an apprenticeship or attend one of the universities of higher learning. The entry into the universities is usually achieved by completion of a successful entry level test according to the field of study. The university students are heavily subsidized by the government. Anybody can afford it but has to have good grades. Most young people go through an apprenticeship. I apprenticed for 4 years with the company “Felder Waffen” in the Kanton of Luzern. Technical jobs typically required a 4-year apprenticeship while other jobs, for example hairdressers, required 3 years. As typical I worked for 4 days a week at Felder and attended one day a week the technical regional college. As there are so few gunsmith apprentices, in the college they lumped us in together with the tool makers and machinists. While the 4 days were hands on, the school day consisted of German, math, technical drawing, technical education, chemistry, physics and physical education. The homework we received was at times pretty intense.
The purpose of the apprenticeship is to learn all skills necessary to perform successfully the requirements demanded by the occupation. How well this is achieved is a matter of the individual and also of the master. Not all masters are equal and depending on the master and the company the results can be a mixed bag. In general, an employer has to go through further schooling and achieve the title of master in order to be allowed to have apprentices. In the case of gunsmiths, this requirement was waved in Switzerland. There were only few companies that took on apprentices, and no master program had been established. In my time there where only perhaps 20 -30 gunsmithing apprentices in the country. Some companies treat apprentices as cheap labor, but the majority approaches it with pride. Ultimately the skill of the graduated apprentice influences the reputation of a company.
I was very fortunate. I met my master, Mr. Felder, at a gunshow. Probably he noticed the calluses on my hands from all the farm work my father had me do and he liked my accent from the Grison mountains. The fact is, he liked to hire farm boys. He always said that he only needs to teach us the trade but not “how to work”. My father contacted him, and Mr. Felder accepted me for a week of try-out. I was on my best behavior, and I remember very clearly the day my dad and I signed the apprentice work contract, back in 1988.
Much later my wife turned me on to the wonderful book “All creatures great and small”, by James Harriot. I was laughing so hard when I read it, because the character Siegfried and Mr. Felder are much alike. Mr. Felder is a real character, but full of decency, generosity, humor and goodness of heart. After consuming a coffee schnapps or two, he was perfectly capable of singing a heartfelt jodel. But also, typical gunsmith, he was moody at times. His face depicted his mood from a mile away. But when his tobacco pipe appeared, life was good. His philosophy was that every gunsmith in the small business had to be able to perform everybody’s else’s job too. We didn’t specialize from one man to another. About 1/3 of our work consisted of most aspects of running a shop and gunstore. This included re-stocking the shelves, ordering, customer service and sales. And yes, things like washing the windows and vacuuming the floor, mopping and cleaning.
We were initially 2 apprentices and two trained gunsmiths in the company. I started off with very simple chores at first. As I got more skilled, I performed a lot of complete or partial gun restorations under supervision. Scope mounting was a huge part. Not in my first two years, but later on I performed dozens of claw mounts on combination guns. General gunsmithing and repairs where the daily order. 300 meter shooting matches are more common than football games in the States, so we did a lot of re-barreling and trigger jobs, under the supervision of Mr. Brun, our shop foreman. I don’t know how many recoil pads I installed, but it was a lot. As the skills improved, more challenging jobs where tasked. Such as re-soldering barrel sets and the occasional partial stocking job.
My issue with the American trade schools is that the attendees don’t have the time to learn and practice the foundations of the trade. For example, filing and hand tool skills are the corner stone of gunsmithing. No student here would be content to file for weeks chunks of steel into usable parts, if the same could be achieved with a milling machine much faster. I get it. The costs of tuition and the lack of time are the issue. For example, let’s look at the 2 years gunsmithing degrees offered by our gunsmithing schools. With all the breaks involved, a student might receive a total of 12 months of training in 2 years. Let’s subtract all the none bench related activities, and he/she receives maybe 8 months of hands-on training in a controlled environment. I assume this is the same for other technical programs. In comparison to a European apprenticeship, the surface was barely scratched. But I digress.
At the tail end of my apprentice ship, new mandatory seminars for the metal working apprentices were introduced by the State board. If my memory serves me right, this consisted of a 3-week filing and hand tool seminar, a 2-week lathe and 2-week milling seminar. Good stuff!
Apprentices typically had to run errands and do lots of cleaning initially. As skills progressed, more challenging work was piled on. For actual gun making, the German and Austrian programs were far superior to the Swiss program. My training was more focused on general gunsmithing and repairs and not much on building new constructions. On the flip side, I was never particularly specialized and was always equally comfortable with metal and woodwork. The Brits have had also good apprentice ship programs. But they specialize intensely. The craftsmen emerging from the British apprenticeships are incredibly good at what they do but seem to be highly specialized in just one area and are therefore rather limited.
The apprentice starts at the bottom and works his way up. Besides technical skills I learned a lot of life’s skills from my master. There were many lessons he passed on to me. For example: “Never lie to a customer. And always admit it if you don’t know the answer to a question”. Or things like: “Buggered up screw slots are the difference between an amateur and a professional”. I doubt you get that kind of tutelage in a college.
Money is the issue. Let’s say a one-man shop such as mine has an apprentice. Not only is the apprentice initially not generating any money for the company, but he also holds up his master from performing tasks and hence slows the master’s income down. It’s a double financial loss in the beginning. Many trades have mundane and easy jobs that can be performed right away by an apprentice. In a gun building environment there are just not that many low skill jobs that make it financially feasible. If I remember correctly, in my first year in 1988 I was paid around $240 a month. In the fourth year around $850. My parents helped me out and paid for room and board. In Switzerland there were income-based subsidies available. My parents are farmers and I believe they did receive credits for the expenditure. In general, I’m not in favor of subsidies. I was told that British companies receive subsidies if they have apprentices. To me this seems to be an investment made well worth for the economic prosperity of a country. Something to consider. I would say the apprentices in Felder’s shop started to be profitable by the third year. Mr. Felder often said that the reason he has apprentices is because they keep him young.
At the end of the 4 years is the final test. The apprentice has to demonstrate over several days his practical skills and theoretical knowledge in front of a federal approved board consistent of masters and instructors. In my case we were about 18 apprentices from all over Switzerland gathered in the workshop of an industrial school in the city of Lenzburg. We each were handed blueprints of parts to be manufactured. We received Mauser actions, a barrel and parts. The action had to be barreled and inlet into a pre-machined stock. A set trigger had to be installed, sight ramps fit and soldered to the barrel and other alterations had to be performed. All this under time constraints. I remember working feverishly under stress and a puddle of my sweat was on the floor below my vise. At intervals I was pulled from the hands-on work and asked to appear before the board. They tested my theoretical knowledge and had me explain the function of a variety of gun systems. At some point they had me tune the trigger on a SIG 210 pistol. I don’t remember, but I think the duration was 4 days. I also had one day of testing of my academic knowledge in the trade school in Luzern. Sometimes after the end of all this I received my grade and my diploma. On a side note, I’ve seen the diploma the Austrians receive. It is beautiful, poster size and very impressive. The Swiss on the flipside are a humble people and my diploma is the size of a post card, and not adorned at all. Oh well, can’t have everything.
After the receipt of the diploma everything changes. You are now a trained professional and are to be compensated as such. A well-rounded apprenticeship will have the tradesman ready to enter the work force full on. The final apprentice test is real life based, under time constrained and not knowing in advance what jobs need to be performed. In conclusion a few final thoughts.
Probably to learn a trade, it seems to me a young person is better off finding employment in a company that has a training program, then attending a college. Maybe evening classes in a technical college could supplement his/her training. As far as gunsmithing is concerned, I would not waste money on a college degree. Instead, a focus on machining and tool making would provide a foundation that will lead to better jobs in the future, should gunsmithing not work out. (Frankly, for most people it will not, for a variety of reasons). To somebody that really is interested in gunsmithing and won’t listen to reason, I would recommend instead of going to college, to contact a grumpy older gunsmith and see if you could pay him for his time to teach you some essentials. You would benefit more in a much shorter time. Some fellows have been offering one-week long seminars, and also the NRA classes in gunsmithing could be very beneficial. Maybe down the road sometime in the future I might consider offering a few seminars, but I have not completely thought that through yet.