Federal Apprenticeship System

Federal law defines and allows for special treatment of “apprentices,” “learners,” and “student learners,” but does not include a policy allowing them to work without pay.

Apprentice: “Apprentice means a worker, at least sixteen years of age unless a higher minimum age standard is otherwise fixed by law, who is employed to learn a skilled trade through a registered apprenticeship program. Training is provided through structured on-the-job training combined with supplemental related theoretical and technical instruction. This term excludes pre-apprentices, trainees, learners, and student-learners. The terms learner and student-learner are defined in this subpart.” 1

Learner: “Learner means a worker who is being trained for an occupation, which is not customarily recognized as an apprenticeable trade, for which skill, dexterity and judgment must be learned and who, when initially employed produces little or nothing of value. Except in extraordinary circumstances, an employee cannot be considered a “learner” once he/she has acquired a total of 240 hours of job-related and/or vocational training with the same or other employer(s) or training facility(ies) during the past three years. An individual qualifying as a “learner” may only be trained in two qualifying occupations.” 2

Student Learner: “Student-learner means a student who is at least sixteen years of age, or at least eighteen years of age if employed in an occupation which the Secretary has declared to be particularly hazardous, who is receiving instruction in an accredited school, college or university and who is employed by an establishment on a part-time basis, pursuant to a bona fide vocational training program.” 3

Employers that register their apprenticeship programs can become eligible for certain tax benefits or workforce development grants, and may be able to pay apprentices less than the prevailing wage rates set in certain industries, such as construction.  According to the National Apprenticeship Act, apprenticeship programs must be registered with the Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship or with a registered State Apprenticeship Agency (SAA) overseeing apprenticeships in that state.

Wisconsin created the first state Registered Apprenticeship system in 1911, and in 1937 Congress enacted the National Apprenticeship Act (also known as the Fitzgerald Act). The National Apprenticeship System created by the Act initially served the manufacturing, construction, and utilities industries. After World War II, the system expanded into many other industries, including firefighters, police, emergency medical technicians, and other health and safety workers. Today the National Apprenticeship System has approximately 24,000 Registered Apprenticeship programs in 29 states or territories providing education and training for over 400,000 apprentices in emerging and high-growth sectors, such as energy conservation, health care and information technology. 4

Eligible Apprenticeship Programs and Apprenticeable Occupations

An eligible apprenticeship program must have an organized written plan for employment, training, and supervision. This must include the term of the apprenticeship, competency measures (based on time apprenticed, demonstrated competency, or a hybrid of those two), an outline of the skills the apprentice will be trained in, an organized course of instruction in related technical subjects, and a progressively increasing schedule of wages to be paid to the apprentice consistent with the skill acquired. The entry wage must not be less than the minimum wage prescribed by the Fair Labor Standards Act. 5

An apprenticeable occupation is defined as “one which is specified by industry and which must:

(a) Involve skills that are customarily learned in a practical way through a structured, systematic program of on-the-job supervised learning;

(b) Be clearly identified and commonly recognized throughout an industry;

(c) Involve the progressive attainment of manual, mechanical or technical skills and knowledge which, in accordance with the industry standard for the occupation, would require the completion of at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job learning to attain; and

(d) Require related instruction to supplement the on-the-job learning.” 6

 California Apprenticeship System

California is one of 27 US states that have established their own standards for registered apprenticeships. Administered by the California Department of Industrial Relations Division of Apprenticeship Standards, California’s apprenticeship program had 54,000 registered apprentices in 2012, significantly more than the next largest state programs in New York and Pennsylvania with 16,500 and 12,000 apprentices, respectively.

California’s standards for registered apprenticeship programs 7 are similar to the National Apprenticeship Program standards, with some noteworthy distinctions.

Wages for apprentices are determined by program sponsors in consultation with the Division of Apprenticeship Standards:

Article 3. Standards for Minimum Wages, Maximum Hours and Working Conditions 8

(a) For Apprentices In All Occupations Except The Building And Construction Industry:

For apprentices participating in approved apprenticeship programs in all industries, except the building and construction industry, the beginning wage rate, employee benefits and other compensation, and the progression of those rates, shall be decided by the sponsoring program in consultation with and subject to the approval of the Chief DAS.

(c) For Apprentices In The Building And Construction Industry Employed On Projects Not Covered By Subsection (b), Above:

(1) A starting hourly wage package for first- period apprentices of not less than 40 percent of the prevailing per diem wage package for journeymen in the apprenticeable occupation and geographic area of the project, as determined by the Director of Industrial Relations for purposes of Labor Code §1720 et seq., using the rate effective on the immediately preceding March 1. At least 65 percent of this minimum hourly wage package must be paid to the apprentice as taxable wages;

(d) For All Apprentices

Nothing in this Section shall permit the payment of less than the minimum wage prescribed by the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act or any applicable State minimum wage order.

Interests of apprentices must be meaningfully represented in the management of each apprenticeship program:

Article 4. Apprenticeship Standards 9

Apprenticeship standards must provide for “meaningful representation of the interests of apprentices in the management of the program, which is shown where:

(A) In a joint labor-management sponsored program, the apprentices participating in that program are represented by a labor organization pursuant to one of the following: National Labor Relations Act, the Railway Labor Act, the California Public Employee Relations Act, Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the Meyers-Milias Brown Act;

(B) In a program sponsored by more than one employer or an association of employers, the apprentices participating in that program are at least equally represented on an advisory panel established by the apprenticeship committee responsible for the operation of the program. The apprentices shall be represented on the advisory panel by at least three representatives of the apprentices’ choice who shall have full voice and vote on the panel except as to financial matters or matters that relate to the administration or structure of an employee benefit plan or the administration or operation of a trust fund. The representatives of the apprentices shall be selected by way of a secret ballot election among the apprentices conducted by the apprenticeship program not less than once every two (2) years. This advisory panel shall meet not less than once every quarter to address issues and concerns raised by and affecting the apprentices in the program.”

California Organic Farming Apprenticeship

Fresh Run Farms (Bolinas, CA) and the College of Marin recently partnered to create California’s first organic farming apprenticeship program registered with the CA Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS). Registered apprentices must complete a 2-year Certificate program in Sustainable Horticulture at the College of Marin, and are then eligible to apply as on-farm apprentices with Fresh Run Farms. On-farm apprentices work for an additional 2 years with program and farm manager Peter Martinelli, earning a progressively increasing wage for their work. Apprentices start out receiving just below the California minimum wage, reflecting the relatively low wages earned by farm workers in general, with wages increasing every six months of completed apprentice work. The organic farming apprenticeship program is the only DAS-registered program that is exempt from California minimum wage law so far.

Read a full case study of this unique Registered Apprenticeship Program published by California Farmlink.