Taking on an Apprentice

It's good for society when young people gain skills. But the rules for apprentices are the same as for employees, and the management problem is not trivial. April 8, 2013

I have the opportunity to take on an apprentice. I do mainly custom furniture work and this young man wants to see if woodworking is something he would like to pursue as a career and get more formal training down the road. He is very excited and can help around the shop a few afternoons a week and more in the summer.

I have a few concerns, mainly liability in the case of an accident... His parents have agreed to sign a waiver. Are there standardized forms for this? Can anyone share experiences with apprentices? Pros/cons? Seems like a win, win to me.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor J:
So, he will be an employee covered under workman's comp? Unless your state has some age restriction for the type of work he would be doing, I don't see a problem.

It wouldn't hurt to speak with an employment attorney to make sure you're covered. Might be the best money you've ever spent.

From contributor R:
A waiver won't be worth the paper it is printed on. If he takes off a hand on the table saw, I bet they go right to a lawyer after the emergency room. Even if the waiver is good, you may need the money to pay a lawyer to protect yourself. I would also suggest that he pays you to learn as you will be slowed down for months teaching him and paying for materials and work he messes up. I tried inexperienced guys at first. There are few jobs making furniture that don't require skills. Even sanding can be messed up by a rookie. Help delivering and unloading plywood are the exceptions of course. I think I have seen ads from Jeff Miller in Chicago about paying to become his apprentice. Might be worth checking that out.

From contributor D:

"Signing waivers" is a meaningless exercise. If he is hurt and you are held negligent, you are liable. It is not up to you or the parents, it is the insurance people - lawyers.

Put him on your workman's comp and talk to your insurance person - treat him as an employee, which is what he is.

In a previous incarnation several years ago, I had a local art school program director send me senior furniture students for part time work in my shop so they could get some real world experience. One or two didn't last two weeks. Several lasted the semester, and they got paid about $6.00 per hour and some school credit. It paid off for both parties, and more than one is now a professional.

Sober and motivated, but a little starry eyed is how I would describe them. I did get some good grunt help. Only one trip to the ER - bandsaw to the thumb.

From contributor C:
It warms my heart to see you take on an apprentice at a young age. You have an opportunity to give him an experience he will carry with him through life. I too am hiring summer help. The rules are he doesn't use any machinery without supervision. I will use him for assembly, clean up, tailing. He will be covered by my workman's comp.

From contributor D:
I forgot to add that what you are proposing to do is a very good idea. You and I and others have a responsibility to teach the young and willing, and encourage this work. Good for us, good for others and good for the craft.

This young man may work out or may not, but you both will be wiser. It is surprising how teaching forces you to examine some of the things you do and why, and makes you a better craftsman. Motivated, serious help at a good rate is essential for any shop, and these people are a good source of what we need.

If you haven't had employees before, you will want to set aside some time on a weekly basis for safety talks. Talk about each tool, its use and misuse, and the guards - even if it seems obvious. Encourage questions. This will help give confidence and respect to the new guy. A formal program with notes and dates will prevent anything unwarranted in case the terrible does happen. Your workman's comp will still go up, but showing that you have safety classes and discuss proper procedure will prevent further litigation. Just document it.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the input so far. I am even more nervous now than I was before. I should add that I do not have any employees right now. So, no worker's comp.

Aside from making a bit of extra cash, are there any benefits to going the route of paid classes? My thought right now is to approach as an intro to woodworking class, just basic info, loaning of reading materials, basic machine operation (watching only), veneering, finishing, etc. If he likes it and sticks to it maybe he could work on a small project here and there.

Does anyone have experience with holding classes in their shop? Even without the use of power tools you can still get hurt. Is it any different if someone is paying to be there as opposed to just being there?

Keep the info coming - WOODWEB is such a great resource.

From contributor B:
No matter how you handle this you will need the correct insurance policy. If someone gets seriously hurt there is a good chance they will sue.

If this person is of high school age then you may need the proper paperwork from the school. We hire young people from the local school system for our shop cleanup job. Working papers supplied by the school are required by CT law if they are under 18 I believe. I'm not sure how this would be handled if they were no longer in school.

From contributor D:
I did do some teaching for a woodwork school several years ago. Mostly amateurs, learning about mortise and tenon and a shop math class. The guy that ran the school said they were insured, but looking back, I doubt it. He could never answer detailed questions about the type and extent of coverage, so I think he was wingin' it. I think your insurance people would take a deep breath if you asked, then start to lay tracks for an expensive policy.

You should have workman's comp for yourself. It is about self respect, if nothing else.

From contributor I:
Are you working from a shop at home? Look at your homeowner's policy. We should all be looking at teaching the next generation. They are the future woodworkers.

From contributor R:
If that is the case for anyone, they should look at their homeowner's. Most won't insure your home provisions if they find out you are running a commercial business on site. Nor will they accept huge tool losses on a residence if you have a fire. Some will write a separate policy for at home businesses.

From contributor X:

Back in the 60s I worked with a gentleman from Italy who came to the US to work as a cabinetmaker. He stated that working as an apprentice in Italy, he was only qualified to be a helper, even at the age of 32. The younger set were not allowed to run machinery, because they did a lot of daydreaming, and did not pay attention to details. Said that his advancement was to fill his mentor's shoes when the mentor passed on. That's why he came over here. I have to agree, apprentices should learn the trade and as they mature, work into the operating of machinery, and that would be years down the road.

From contributor D:
Don't forget the old apprentice system usually involved something like selling off your child to the local craftsman, who would then utilize him almost like slave labor. There was no other way to do it, due to the guild system (forerunner of unions).

Legality and modern education can improve on the old way greatly. For the right young person, a part time job in a real working shop will be a great introduction to the world of rewarding and professional craft work. We just do a terrible job at self-promotion, or else there would be a waiting list.

When you see every one of the local woodworking school classes sell out to 50+ year old well-off retirees, you realize there is a huge pent-up desire for the learning of real work.

From contributor O:
If this person hasn't ever worked in a shop, and it sounds like they haven't, power tools should be off limits for a long time. Teach him the way to do things with hand tools first so the most he can do is stab himself. I have both my kids in the shop off and on teaching them things and the only power tools the oldest gets to use is the scroll saw and a small screw gun. Everything else is done by hand. No way will they be using a tablesaw until they are much older and even then it will be with all the guards in place and lots of supervision. Maybe even a Saw Stop just in case. I'm not going to cut my fingers off but I really don't want them doing it either.

You won't make money teaching classes for a while, as it takes lots of prep time pre-class to get ready, making handouts, cutting stock, etc. If you're good enough at what you do you might look into teaching at someone else's school. Marc Adams, William NG, etc. Insurance is covered, they have enough tools for everyone and they can help with stock prep, they fill the classes and handle the money. The pay is probably better than you'll get in your own shop as well, I think it was around $2k per week of teaching in classes of 8-20.

From contributor W:
Unless you have a viable training program already set up this apprenticeship will be a win-deal for the kid but not a win-win for both of you. If you have the resources to spare and can afford some philanthropy go for it, otherwise take a different approach.

If part of your goal is to generate some lower cost assistance in the shop, you might want to consider dividing up your trainee hours amongst two or even three part-timers.

The problem with downloading all your expense to one person is that this person has legs. If he gets injured, mad or his wife gets a transfer, all of the hours you have invested in this person hike with him.

You start out with teaching them how to build a door and then a face frame and then an end panel and box. Pretty soon (12 months later) you have these parts of your organization clicking well… until he votes with his legs.

There are several reasons to spread this work around. If the kid in doors is no longer available, you only have to get someone trained up in doors. You don't also lose your drawer box, face frame and assembly department. A navy ship is built with a series of chambers for just this purpose. If it takes a torpedo, only 30 feet of the boat takes on water.

Several people in this department give you several people to pick from and generally helps you keep your costs lower. At least one of these three will be available in a pinch if you need weekend work and they will all be performing at a slightly more aggressive level. It's hard to remain competitive when there is no one to compete with.

To make this work you need to understand what you need to train and how best to illustrate the information. You need to have a plan for training already in place before you hire the trainee.

This is not easy which is why most companies just do it with the tribal elder approach. The company that can master choreography and training will have a durable advantage no CNC machine can compete with.

From contributor D:
The original poster is not a working cabinet factory, so there will be no kid in doors.

Your point on walking is valid, but if the shop owner creates a positive environment and relationship, it is hoped that there will be some reciprocity. I never expected my helpers to be permanent. They needed to move on, and I encouraged it.

The questioner does one of a kind furniture, so I see lots of sanding and rubbing out of finish. One of a kind means high variety, so lots to learn. A kid in doors better learn all there is to his repetitive job in 3 weeks or he never will.

The challenge is to have the work flow and cash flow to take on the responsibility. It sounds as if self insurance will be first to overcome.

From contributor L:
The courts have ruled you can't sign away your rights, i.e. waivers have no legal value.

Federal law requires operators of power equipment be at least 18. There is a provision for students coming from and part of a school program. Your insurance company needs to have input. If he is paid anything you need work comp insurance (probably even if he isn't paid). Minimum wage laws probably apply. As an employer of less than 11 people you probably wouldn't be subject to OSHA inspections/fines unless you have a serious accident.

We utilize college student help. Most are bright, ambitious and want to learn.

From contributor A:
I've trained about a dozen apprentices over a 25 year period, all but one of them many years ago. They were all covered by workmen's comp and I had full commercial insurance. They were paid a living wage, not generous, merely living. They started out doing the dirty work and being gofers, eventually producing useful work. With one exception, they were all over 18 years old. This was all in my first shop.

In my 2nd shop, I have an apprentice, but the situation is world's different. The shop is a fully equipped commercial shop, but it is in a large garage. It is covered by my homeowner's policy. My apprentice is not covered. I cannot get workmen's comp for him without alerting the city zoning authorities to what I'm doing, since the area is zoned residential. My neighbors are cool, because we don't make a lot of noise.

The net result is that any machine that could remove a body part is off limits, despite the fact that my apprentice is perfectly capable of using the machines safely. That's the price I have to pay. That said, he does a lot of the sanding and heavy lifting of lumber, provides an extra set of hands during glueup, etc. I pay him $15/hr and it is worth every penny.

From contributor W:
I completely understand where you're coming from. It looks like a good idea on paper - someone cheap to help out and lighten your load, but I have done this in the past and will never do it again.

The first question to ask yourself is "How busy am I?" By bringing on someone who knows nothing, and needs instruction on every aspect of the job, all of your time will go to instruction, and supervision, and production will almost disappear. Can you afford to do this? The liability aspect is also completely terrifying. Regardless of waiver, if an accident results, and any fault can be placed on you, then a good lawyer will. Reference the Ryobi/Sawstop case. Unless all of your tooling is to the highest safety standards, and your supervision is constant, you're open to all kinds of issues.

We now do hire apprentices, but in conjunction with an adult training center, and the candidate has to complete a 14 week training course first.

My advice: if he's keen to learn, take him on, and let him observe in the shop. Have him sweep and clean to earn his keep (and take these tasks away from you) and dedicate 1 hour a day to teach him hand skills. This will be all of the introduction that he needs to get a taste, and see if he likes the possibility of doing what we all love.

Your heart is in the right place by doing this, but you must protect yourself legally and your business (knowing how much time an apprentice will cost you) first.