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Trades are composed of jobs in which workers typically train for the work through apprenticeships. The training period may last from two to five years. Skilled workers such as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and mechanics learn how to do the work through apprenticeships and on-the-job training. Many also start out as helpers.

The apprenticeship system dates back to medieval times, when guilds for skilled crafts workers were formed in Western Europe. Master craftsmen controlled these guilds and supervised the workers, production methods, and the quality of the products. Apprentices trained for up to seven years before they became full guild members.

In the 1600s and 1700s, skilled crafts workers emigrated from England to America to work as apprentices. They entered into a contract with a master craftsman. The terms were usually that they would work for free in exchange for training in the craft and room and board. Masters usually provided apprentices with education in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Apprentices may also have received clothing and/or a set of tools. Some were paid at the end of the apprenticeship. Apprentices were predominantly young men, sometimes as young as 14 years old. Apprentices worked alongside the master and journeymen, who had completed apprenticeships and were paid workers. The types of trades apprentices learned in colonial America were blacksmith, bookbinder, brickmaker, cabinetmaker, carpenter and joiner, cooper, gunsmith, printer and bookbinder, among many others.

The national apprenticeship system was established in 1937 with the Fitzgerald Act, which gave the U.S. Secretary of Labor authority over apprenticeship programs, established an apprenticeship office within the U.S. Department of Labor, and enabled state agencies to register and administer apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeship, as described by the Department of Labor, “is a highly desirable form of training for workers because it is first and foremost a job. It allows for: learning job skills while earning an income; wage progression; and a widely recognized and portable certificate of completion and proficiency.”

Apprenticeships are offered through private and public sectors. There are union as well as non-union apprenticeship programs. Employers, community colleges and universities, workforce investment boards, industry associations, and the military are among the groups that sponsor apprenticeship programs that are registered through the U.S. Department of Labor.

Many trades jobs are affected by the state of the economy. During times of economic slowdown, such as during the recent coronavirus pandemic, construction and related building and renovation activity slows down as companies cut their budgets. Home owners also scale back on spending on home repairs and improvements unless they are absolutely necessary. The market research group IBISWorld reports that the U.S. carpenters comprise a $36.1 billion business. In May 2019, there were 734,170 carpenters working in the United States; the majority work in residential and nonresidential building construction, and as building finishing contractors. Plumbers generate $105.5 billion in revenue. Approximately 442,870 plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters work in the United States. Most work as building equipment contractors; the rest are employed in utility system construction, nonresidential building construction, and local government. Some work in ship and boat building.

Electricians represent a $174 billion business with 202,197 electrician companies. The DOL reports that as of May 2019, there were 688,620 electricians employed in the United States. Many work in the electrical contractors and wiring installation contractors industry. IBISWorld reports that the U.S. masonry industry generates $30 billion in revenue and there were 81,576 masonry businesses as of July 2020. Approximately 196,120 cement masons and concrete finishers work in the United States. There are also brickmasons and blockmasons, stonemasons, terrazzo workers and finishers, and segmental pavers (also known as patio pavers).