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Apprenticeships – The high price for low cost labor

By Rachel Armstrong

If a farmer wants to pay less than minimum wage to an apprentice, she has to apply for a special certificate. One look at the requirements to receive the certificate and most farmers will close the book on apprenticeships. The new agriculture–local, organic, urban, or whatever your flavor–might not be right for this employment alternative yet.

What’s the problem?

A farmer decides to check the law on apprenticeships. After reading statutes, she decides the paperwork is worth it if she can manage her labor costs by providing her employees with a good educational experience. Then she reads that apprentices must be paid minimum wage. She thinks, “What?! What do I have to do to provide education to my employees in exchange for a lower wage?”

Where does the law come in?

Not only does a farmer wishing to have an apprentice program have to register the position with the federal government, he has to pay minimum wage. If the farmer can show that lower wages are necessary to avoid curtailment of employment opportunities and that there is a shortage of experienced workers, he may receive a special certificate to pay less.

Details, please:

My earlier blog post talks about apprenticeships from a legal perspective. Here’s the summary, straight from the statutes: “Apprentice means a worker 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.” The catch is that having an apprentice doesn’t get the employer out of paying minimum wage. Only a “special certificate” will exempt a farm from paying minimum wage to its apprentices.

A certificate is available only if a farmer asks for one specifically and the government approves the request based on an individual review of the farmer’s application. To convince the authority that a farmer deserves a special certificate, he would first have to show that subminimum wages are essential to “avoid curtailment of employment opportunities.” Personally, I’m having a hard time figuring out when paying less than would accomplish that. But don’t blame me–those aren’t my words! What do you think it means? If that ambiguity isn’t trouble enough, there’s more. If the farmer wants to pay subminimum wage for more than 6 weeks of full-time work, he needs to show that extraordinary circumstances justify an extension. After some solid research, I can’t find a better explanation of what these phrases mean legally.

Even if a farmer could show that extraordinary circumstances exist, she also needs to show that there is currently an inadequate supply of experienced workers. She has to show that all the farmer’s current workers are offered full-time employment at regular wages when they conclude their apprenticeship and she still can’t find enough workers. Here’s where things really go awry for the farm employer: We can probably agree that most farm employees are not offered a regularly paid position at the conclusion of their educational time with the farm.

The requirements for an apprenticeship are stiff and for good reason. Earlier, I mentioned how apprenticeships are geared towards industries where the learning is accomplished through doing. The second goal of apprenticeship programs is to create a steady supply of technically qualified workers. Here farm work diverges from plumbing or brick laying. The plumbers’ union might want more and more young plumbers, because they enter the workforce as private contractors employed at a prevailing wage. It is not like that with farmers. Simply put, the apprenticeship is not a way to make hiring help more affordable, though many farmers hope it might be.

It’s very possible that many elements of the new agricultural community, including urban and local food industries, could grow to the point where there is a job available for every apprentice who completes their training. We can dream, right? Some programs like CRAFT are helping move us in that direction by joining up with farmers to provide great educational programming. For now, farmers need a solution other than apprenticeships to manage labor costs and support beginning farmers. We’ll continue to explore options in the next few weeks!

What do you think?

  • What justifies subminimum wages and how difficult should it be for the employer to earn an exception? Are these requirements too steep?
  • Do you disagree that farm apprentices find regular employment quickly and there is a labor shortage?
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