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Working With an Apprentice – Setting Expectations & Balancing Work and Education

This is our fourth in our series to help you find and work with apprentices or interns. You can catch up with the whole series here.

Your apprentice is about to arrive!

How do you structure the workday, week, and month so that both education and the work get done? Today we’ll share strategies from setting up regular work meetings, to how to find those ‘teachable moments’ during a workday, and ways to do up-front training to get your apprentice going and maintain focus, communication and motivation in the busy season. These, along with writing an apprenticeship agreement, creating a skills list, and setting clear boundaries at the beginning can support a successful apprenticeship.

Before Your Apprentice Arrives

Before your apprentice arrives, make sure you work out these important details:

The IRS considers apprentices to be employees, not independent contractors, so you will need to get them set up on payroll as an employee. The apprentice will need to fill out a W-4 form upon arrival. Speak with your business accountant or check online regarding your anticipated annual payroll tax liability to the IRS and the state, so that you can make monthly or quarterly deposits into those systems, should that be necessary. If you are required to make such deposits and neglect to do so, the penalties and interest can be substantial. Familiarize yourself with your year-end reporting of federal and state payroll taxes to both the IRS (often filing Form 943 for agricultural workers) and your state. Filing deadlines are early in the following year.

Workers’ Compensation
Given that your apprentice is considered an employee by the IRS, it is prudent and conscientious to carry a workers’ compensation insurance policy. This is especially true given the physical risk inherent in ranching and farming. In some states, carrying workers’ compensation is a legal requirement. Talk with your ranch or farm insurance provider, as they often offer such policies and will be able to advise you on requirements specific to your state. If you are a rancher, your state cattlemen’s association may also provide you with an affordable policy. Workers’ compensation coverage is based on wages, housing, board, and any other compensation you offer, so be sure to calculate the dollar amounts of in-kind compensation prior to meeting with your insurance agent.

Work Agreement
Even if you don’t typically create contracts with other employees, we recommend creating a contract or work agreement for your apprentice. This protects you as well as the apprentice from misunderstandings. A basic employment contract stipulates compensation, start and end dates, day(s) off, vacation or sick leave policy, early termination, or any other details that are beneficial to have in writing. Do you have specific policies around use of the apprentice housing, overnight guests, smoking on site, or how to request time off? The work agreement is the place to put these details in writing, so that your expectations are clearly communicated and the apprentice has a chance to know exactly what they’re agreeing to.

Details for Your Apprentice to Know

Your new apprentice is likely to have lots of questions about how to get ready and what they should prepare before arriving. Make sure to communicate these details with them well ahead of time:

Gear List
Don’t assume that the apprentice knows what sort of gear they should bring or what the typical weather conditions are. Send them a gear list, including items that they should have for work and anything that they should bring for their housing. Let them know about any supplies that you plan to provide. You want your apprentice to be prepared and comfortable for their first days on the job.

Suggested Reading
Many apprentices are eager to do what they can to get a jump on learning . You may consider sending them a list of reading suggestions. Do you have any favorite books, publications, or podcasts that might help either prepare them or get them inspired for the upcoming work?

Contact Information
Make sure they have your contact information, as well as the correct physical address, mailing address, and phone number for the apprentice housing (if applicable).

Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky

Within the First Week to 10 Days

When the apprentice arrives, make it a priority to do a short orientation, including a tour of your ranch or farm, introductions to anyone they might work or socialize with, and a short tour of the surrounding area. Not only will this help your apprentice get oriented, it will also make them feel welcomed and like someone is looking out for them.

During your first day together, take care of any paperwork. This should include signing a contract or work agreement, filling out payroll paperwork, and collecting emergency contact information. Review any ranch/farm safety policies, including vehicle or equipment use, and what to do in case of an accident or injury. Have your apprentice fill out a medical intake form, so that you’re aware of any allergies, injuries, or medical conditions to be aware. You can’t ask these things during an interview–but once they are an employee, collecting this info is doing due diligence.

Review the ranch/farm schedule, including their days off and any big upcoming tasks or events. Provide both an overview of the typical week, as well as an overview of the month and year will help them get their bearings. Remember that the rhythms and seasonality of the work–things that may seem like common sense to you at this point–may be totally unfamiliar to your apprentice.

Skills Assessment
Schedule focused time to sit down with them and go over a skills checklist together. We recommend starting a template based on what skills you have to teach, and then adding to it based on the apprentice’s individual interests. Using a skills checklist throughout the season is a useful tool for tracking progress. Your apprentice is there to learn and gain new skills, and utilizing a skills checklist will help hold both of you accountable. It also demonstrates to them that their education is important to you, which builds trust. Going through the skills list together at the start of the apprenticeship to establish a baseline will help you target your teaching to where it’s most needed, measure improvement, and ensure effective use of the list throughout the season. Take this opportunity to schedule monthly check-ins for the full duration of the apprenticeship and mark these dates on the ranch or farm calendar.

Get to Know Them as a Person
Remember that your apprentice may be experiencing a lot of change at once. Make them feel welcome by getting to know them as a person, and allowing them to get to know you. Have a family meal with them, tell them about what you love about your work and where you live, and ask them about their goals — practical and personal — that go above and beyond their job duties and skill sheet

Additional Resources

For a sample skills checklist, employment agreement, interview questions and more, check out the Quivira Coalition’s Apprenticeship Handbook.

The National Ag Apprenticeship Learning Network also has an online Toolkit with great samples of orientation schedules, work agreements, curriculum, and other tools to help you get off to a good start.

Here’s the last in the series:

Build a Self-Starter Apprentice/Employee With Feedback and Mentoring

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