Published date: 04/15/2021

One aspect of public works projects that always seems to be at the top of the FAQ list among contractors is that of apprentices. Who can be considered an apprentice? How much can they be paid? How many of them can I employ?

Let’s squash some of those quandaries… and maybe tackle a few of the more nuanced issues along the way.

The Basics

What constitutes an apprentice? In the simplest form of the word, an apprentice is a person who is in the process of learning a trade and therefore agrees to work for a fixed period at lower wages. The first (and most important) takeaway here is lower wages. No, this does not mean no wages . In the context of public works, we mean “lower” compared to the rates that a journeyman would earn. And for those new to the industry, a journeyman is a construction worker who has gained the necessary experience to be paid full prevailing wage for his or her craft.

Where Is the Line Drawn?

When it comes to federal prevailing wage jobs governed by the Davis-Bacon Act (DBA), there is specific criteria for who  is recognized as an apprentice by the US Department of Labor (USDOL). You can’t just say, “Hmm, well Bob doesn’t seem to be as productive and efficient as the rest of our crew. I think he’s the least experienced so I’m going to pay him like he’s an apprentice.”

The fact of the matter is, there are two main ways in which the USDOL will recognize someone as an apprentice. The first one is if he or she is registered with an apprenticeship program that is recognized by the USDOL’s employment and Training Administration (ETA) – more specifically, the Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer, and Labor Services (OA). The second option is when no such agency exists in a particular state, and so the apprentice is under a program registered to the OA itself.

Apprenticeship Program Specifications

The apprenticeship programs approved and recognized by the USDOL can be found on their website They can also be found through state schools, union programs, and other industry organizations like Associated General Contractors (AGC) or Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. (ABC).

Each program might have different specifications, but before we get to some of those, let’s cover the USDOL’s apprenticeship standards. We already discussed how each apprentice must be individually registered with an approved program. But you should also be aware that there are different levels of training in the program, and an apprentice must go through all levels before graduating. These levels are determined by the amount of experience the apprentice has accumulated, which is measured by the number of hours worked in their trade. Each time an apprentice meets a certain threshold of hours, he or she moves up to the next level until he or she finally reaches journeyman status. And along the way – yep, you guessed it – there is an associated rate of pay with each level.

Typically, programs will outline each apprentice level rates as a percentage of the journeyman prevailing wage rate, so these can differ from one trade’s program to another. The breakdown will also typically be outlined in the trade union’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) or the training program’s documentation.

Another specification to look out for in each apprenticeship program is the apprenticeship ratio. What does this mean? Let’s dive deeper.

Apprentice Ratios

Part of the apprentice standards stipulates that for every apprentice a contractor employs on a project, they must have a minimum number of journeymen to supervise them. Let’s say, for example, that a program mandates a 3:1 ratio. That means for every three apprentices working on a project, there needs to be at least one journeyman. And it should be duly noted that this applies on a daily basis. If a journeyman is out sick one day and a contractor falls below the ratio on a project, the contractor must do one of two things: either they adjust to the situation by treating the excess apprentices like journeymen (a.k.a. paying them the full journeyman rates), or they take the excess apprentices off the site that day.

You will have to reference each program specifically because the allowable ratio can vary. On top of that, specific states may have their own set of apprenticeship rules. California, for instance, is one of the most stringent states when it comes to public works regulations, and this includes how they handle apprenticeships. In fact, California’s standards contradict with many of the USDOL’s. So if you do any work in the golden state, keep an eye out for that.


One more thing that tends to be at the top of the list of importance when it comes to apprentices is documentation. Since apprentices are allowed to be paid less than the federal prevailing wage, it’s good business practice to keep documentation backing up that lower pay rate. When a compliance officer comes knocking at your door during an audit because they see an employee possibly being underpaid, do not expect them to simply take your word for it that he or she is an apprentice. They are going to want to see proof.

Copies of apprentice certifications from the USDOL work well; most awarding bodies will require this from you anyway. And make sure they are kept up-to-date because they typically expire after a certain amount of time. Another thing you will often be expected to submit is the approved program ratio as well as a wage schedule. It’s also good idea to keep copies of the apprentice status letters received from the apprenticeship program.

Remember This

It’s always advisable to have trained staff that has a good understanding of DBA requirements. Clearly, the nuances of apprentice regulations are only just one aspect of prevailing wage compliance. If you don’t have a team that’s up-to-date on all the current laws and regulations, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to fines and penalties.

To build your knowledge on DBA,  you can enroll in classes through our LCPtracker Academy programs. For a full list of courses or more information, please visit

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