How Apprenticeship Programs Work

Apprenticeships in the United States and New Jersey

In the United States, apprenticeships were largely unregulated until the Great Depression era.  When President Franklin D. Roosevelt came into office in 1933 after years of deep and widespread unemployment and poverty triggered by the stock market crash in October 1929,[129] he advocated for a series of significant programs and policies to create jobs and foster economic stability, known as the New Deal.[130] 

The National Youth Administration, established as part of the Works Progress Administration,[131] was tasked with helping young people between the ages of 16 and 25 find work—including through apprenticeships.  Notably, the National Youth Administration paid Black and white youth equal wages for their work and offered both young men and women employment opportunities—including in racially-integrated workplaces.[132]  This happened a generation before the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education,[133] holding that segregated schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which gradually led to a series of cases establishing racial integration throughout society—codified by federal statute in the landmark trio of civil rights laws.[134]

Just a few years later, Congress passed the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937, also known as the Fitzgerald Act.[135]  The Fitzgerald Act transferred the authority for overseeing apprenticeship programs from the National Youth Administration to the U.S. Department of Labor, empowering the Secretary of Labor to “formulate and promote the furtherance of labor standards necessary to safeguard the welfare of apprentices and to cooperate with the States in the promotion of such standards.”[136]

Over time, Congress amended the Fitzgerald Act and the U.S. Department of Labor issued administrative interpretations of the law[137] to set out more specific requirements for apprenticeship programs. 

First, an organization or group of organizations must apply for registration of an apprenticeship program to either the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship in their state or a recognized State Apprenticeship Agency.[138]  The apprenticeship program must be in an “apprenticeable occupation,” which is broadly defined to be a job in an industry, 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.[139]

Second, the sponsor of a federally-registered apprenticeship program must have a written plan—called “program standards”—that describes the “terms and conditions of employment, training, and supervision” of the apprentices, including whether the apprenticeship will be completed under a time-based, competency-based, or hybrid approach.[140] 

Under a time-based approach, the apprenticeship term is equal to the industry-standard for on-the-job learning, which is typically “at least 2,000 hours” (50 work weeks).[141]  The competency-based approach requires the apprentice to attain a certain level of skills-based competency before graduating from the apprenticeship program, which means that the completion time may vary among individual apprentices.[142]  The hybrid approach incorporates elements of both the time-based and competency-based methods, measuring the “apprentice's skill acquisition through a combination of specified minimum number of hours of on-the-job learning and the successful demonstration of competency.”[143]

In addition to the on-the-job learning, the apprenticeship program standards provide for instruction in the technical aspects of the job and occupation, whether in a traditional education class, an occupational or workforce training course, through electronic media (like online learning), or in another approved format.[144]  Although it is not required, a minimum of 144 hours of instruction annually is recommended.[145]

The program standards for a federally-registered apprenticeship also include specific labor protections for the apprentices, including regular performance evaluations and the maintenance of records of their progress in the apprenticeship program, payment of at least minimum wage at the beginning of the program and a “progressively increasing schedule of wages to be paid to the apprentice consistent with the skill acquired,” and a ratio of apprentices to experienced workers to enable proper supervision, training, and safety.[146]  The probationary period of the apprenticeship—during which the employer can cancel the agreement without stated cause—cannot exceed 25% of the program length or one year, whichever is shorter.[147]

Further, the employer and sponsors of an apprenticeship program are required to comply with anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws, and to incorporate their plan for compliance into their program standards.  This includes filing a written equal opportunity pledge as part of the program standards,[148] creating an affirmative action program within the apprenticeship program,[149] and devising a selection process for apprentices that is facially neutral and non-discriminatory in terms of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age (40 or older), genetic information, and disability.[150]

Beyond following the requirements for registering an apprenticeship program and adhering to minimal program standards, there is a lot of flexibility for employers and other organizations to start and run apprenticeship programs to meet the needs of their business or industry—including anticipating future workforce needs. 

Apprenticeships are decentralized in the United States, meaning that most of the support and coordination happens at the state level through the federal Office of Apprenticeship or a federally-recognized State Apprenticeship Agency.  The states that have significant and successful apprenticeship programs often provide additional support for businesses, industry association, and community colleges and workforce training providers, through both state law and policy.

New Jersey has a federal Office of Apprenticeship,[151] which registers and oversees federally-registered apprenticeships in the state, and a newly-created Office of Apprenticeships in the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.  Earlier this year, Governor Murphy announced the New Jersey Apprenticeship Network (NJAN), under which is the state’s Office of Apprenticeships and an inter-agency initiative to integrate apprenticeships into the state’s education system, led by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the Department of Education, and the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education.[152]  The new state Office of Apprenticeships is charged with developing programs through a state Apprenticeship Innovation Fund, and with supporting apprenticeship registration and expansion with industries, key stakeholders, and the federal Department of Labor.[153] 

These initiatives build upon the state’s established federally-registered apprenticeship programs.  As of the most recent data available, there are currently 7,299 active apprentices in New Jersey, participating in 727 different programs.[154]  As in most states, the bulk of the apprentices in New Jersey are in the skilled trades.  The top five occupations with the most apprentices in New Jersey include the following: (1) carpenter (1,846), (2) electrician (898), (3) plumber (504), (4) corrections officer (304), and (5) steelworker (296).[155] 


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