Are labor union apprentice programs only for young people or should the federal law against age discrimination open them up for older folks? When the Labor Department was in charge of enforcement, it said apprenticeship was for the young. But now the law has been shifted to another agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has different ideas.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, passed in 1967, was designed to "promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age" and "to prohibit" arbitrary age discrimination. From the time it became law through 1978, the Labor Department had responsibility for enforcing the act, and its lawyers interpreted the law as not applying to "bona fide apprenticeship programs."

In 1978, a Carter administration reorganization program shifted responsibility for the act to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Now, two years later, the EEOC has rejected the Labor Department view on apprenticeship programs. It has proposed a rule that would make such programs open to individuals of any age (Federal Register, Sept. 29, page 64212). "While certain apprenticeship programs may have legitimate reasons for excluding employes on the basis of age, the commission does not feel that those few exceptions justify an interpretation which would permit all apprenticeship programs to exclude employes of any age," the EEOC notice said.

The proposed rule is bound to stir up controversy. The building trades unions, according to one EEOC official, maintain a cutoff at age 27 for most apprenticeship programs. That could come under attack should the rules be changed. But the official added that older applicants could still be turned away on the grounds they physically could not perform the job or that once trained they could not work long enough to justify the expense of training them.

Pressure to get the EEOC to change the Labor Department rule came, this official said, in good part from women's organizations which contend that women, more than any other group in the labor force, have to make career choices later in life.

Though the labor unions are expected to howl over what the EEOC wants to do, the Labor Department is not. "Labor has not taken a position on our new rule," an EEOC layers said recently, "nor do we anticipate that they will."