Friday, May 3, 2013

What makes a Journeyman?

Every now and then somebody asks me what I think the definition of a journeyman is. For such a simple question I find it can be a difficult concept to explain to people outside the trades. There are many aspects of the relationship between the apprentice and the journeyman, and the journeyman and the master craftsman that people cannot easily relate to. There are some close professional parallels, but the differences are enough that full appreciation is not an easy concept for me to explain.

 If you could wrap up the definition of a journeyman in a tidy bow, it might read that its a certain number of years of experience at a given occupation or that the person has a particular set of skills in a their chosen trade.This is the simplified explanation that I give when asked to explain what a journeyman is to curious people.

What is typically accepted as minimum requirements for journeyman status is 10,000 hours of direct work experience in a particular trade. That time is spent working with established journeymen and master craftsmen with roughly ten percent of that total time in an actual classroom setting such as college courses or accredited vocational training.

 Here in the United States for many trades there are no established standards as to what makes a journeyman. Peer review and demonstrated knowledge of the trade is generally accepted for many occupations. Another rough rule of thumb to attain journeyman status is a minimum of four years combined with four different jobs. In the building trades written testing and state licensing are used to establish accepted journeyman status.

One of the key distinctions of a journeyman is that their broad work experience and practical skills allow them to teach and train others in their chosen trade. This giving back of knowledge is one of the most important contributions we as journeymen give our trade. We all stand on the shoulders of the people that have gone before us, so part of the requirement of the title is to help the less experienced.

A true journeymen will have enough trade knowledge and experience to work unsupervised. They have the earned the trust and autonomy to decide how the work will be handled and processed. This trade knowledge has been gained through more than a single work assignment. A single organization with average turnover does not provide the necessary critical mass of new ideas and the deep cross section of problems to create true journey level experience. The true journeyman has absorbed the experience through hours of training and work that now enable him or her to function maturely and independently on a wide variety of problems and situations.

Through years of work and observing others in our trades journeymen will continue to learn and can adapt their skills to the changing methods, materials and economic trends of the world around them. In the "olden days" the journeyman actually traveled around the country honing their craft and expanding their trade knowledge working for, and being vetted by several master craftsmen.

For me it has a much deeper, and emotional meaning. It is much more than a checklist of accomplishments completed. It is an attitude and ethic as well as a deep commitment to the craft, not just a simple toolkit of skills and a pile of time cards related to a given trade.

In the martial arts the relative ranking of the students is highly visible from the color of their belts. Talk to any black belt and you will be surprised to hear that the black belt is really just the beginning instead of the more popular belief that it is the highest achievement. The black belt in the martial arts and the journeyman trades person share that same starting point.

Just like the martial arts, the trades demand a similar level of humility and respect for the craft. You start at the bottom for a reason. This right of passage teaches the key ingredients in a way that bonds the person to the trade and the more experienced crafts people by common shared experience. Without the humble beginnings of every journeyman's career one cannot fully share and appreciate the journey. True journeymen are bonded together through the work and mutual respect of their achievements. The ability to cope with crappy work assignments, obnoxious co-workers and dismal working conditions is part of the tempering process that the apprentice goes through on the road to being a journeyman.

The title of journeyman must not be handed out casually. It reflects badly on all the people who's shoulders we are standing on to allow an apprentice to be awarded journeyman status, or a journeyman to be deemed a master craftsman without the proper depth and breadth of experience required for the title.

Early promotion and relaxed skill requirements handed out by the uninitiated diminishes every craftsman's gift of knowledge to the trade. The promotion without jury or real peer review does a tremendous disservice to the trade when its allowed to happen. Just as we would not want an unlicensed and untrained doctor performing surgery, or an airplane pilot with limited flight experience in the captains seat we don't want to promote inexperienced trades people just to placate a lack of patience and appreciation for the path our fellow craftspeople have left for us to follow.

Chop wood, carry water, clean the shop for a few years. And if you don't complain, we might let you pick up a tool and lend a hand. So if you really want to be a journeyman and a master craftsman follow these simple rules.

Suck it up.Work really hard. Learn to love your work. Be proud to let it define you .You wont be sorry.

Thanks for looking

Tom Lipton


  1. Hi Tom,
    Great topic.
    I like to tell my students the same time frame, 10,000 hours to develop reliable muscle memory. Hopefully by that time we have learned to keep our egos out of our work so we can focus on the job at hand instead of what someone thinks about what we're doing.

  2. Hi Gordon,

    Thanks for the comment. This is an important subject these days with all the self appointed experts running around.

    I need to stop by and visit soon. I have a couple of technician apprentices that would like to see your shop. I'll call you soon.

    Kind Regards,


  3. Thank you for the writing Tom. I am a permit worker with Local 16 and hope to one day become a Journeyman in my Audio trade. I've got a lot of work ahead of me but enjoy where I am in the present and Love to use a fresh pair of eyes with each new job I do.

    Thanks again,

  4. Hi Dana,

    Keep up the hard work. It will be worth it. Learn everything you can, about everything you can.

    Good luck with your career.

    Tom Lipton

  5. Tom,
    I can relate to your article on Journeymen. I spent my career as an Electronics Design Engineer. I started out as a technician and worked my way up to "Engineer" in 10 years. It was hard to achieve this as I didn't have a degree in Engineering. Later in my career I became an Engineering Manager and hired many engineers, from "green", just out of college, to seasoned old farts. The best one's were, as I was, a technician first, and worked to get a degree.
    I always professed that Engineering should follow a Journeyman philosophy, and a graduate engineer should work as a technician for 15,000 hours before gaining the title of "Engineer". This follows the simular Professional Engineer qualifications in Texas( Test, Engineering in Training, Work experience, and final test).
    These days, we through the title of Engineer around very loosely, and the quality of work is just as loose.

  6. Hi Herb,

    Thanks for the comment. You are quite correct that the term engineer gets thrown around pretty loosely. What the heck is a sales engineer anyway?


    Tom Lipton