California’s state apprenticeship council no longer has authority to approve state apprenticeship programs with any federal funding, following a Jan. 31 decision by the U.S. Dept. of Labor that upheld a similar ruling by an administrative law judge. All projects in California receiving federal funds now must seek DOL approval.

A DOL review board agreed with the 2005 decision that the state’s apprenticeship laws did not conform with federal law. It said the “needs test” set by a 1999 California law limits competition among apprenticeship programs and apprentice training opportunities. The law requires sponsors of a new program to demonstrate need based on specific criteria in order to obtain council approval.

Any state public works projects subject to the state’s prevailing wage law still need state approval, says David Rowan, chief of apprenticeship standards in the state Dept. of Industrial Relations. If a project has “any federal money at all, it would [also] require federal approval,” adds a spokesman.

The Associated Builders and Contractors, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, took issue with the needs test. Kevin Dayton, state government affairs director for ABC of California, described it as “a legal tool used by unions to block expansion of apprenticeship programs in California.” ABC is seeking repeal of the needs test law.

Bob Balgenorth, president of the AFL-CIO’s California Building and Construction Trades Council, laments the derecognition as “a step backward” because federal apprenticeship standards are less rigorous. “In California, at least an apprenticeship program has to have minimal standards to be approved,” he adds.

Federal approval for about 280 state-approved construction programs should be a “pretty smooth process,” says Rowan. “I think there’s a lot of concern, but we don’t think there’s going to be a lot of impact.”