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News / Business

Pipeline for area pipefitters: Competition seen as critical recruiting tool and skill developer for a trade in demand

By Thomas Clouse, The Spokesman-Review
Published: May 19, 2023, 8:55am

SPOKANE — Below pop-up awnings and under the watchful eyes of journeymen, apprentice pipe fitters and welders worked last week to show off their skills in turning steel and copper into useful building components.

While not quite the Olympics, the competition pitted workers from local unions against each other for the chance to compete at regionals in Las Vegas and possibly the national competition in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“It’s a cool thing,” said Joe Krels, who is the director of training for the Inland Empire Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee. “It’s a way we use to keep local workers up to date with industry standards.”

And it’s an industry with needs.

Joel White, executive officer for the Spokane Home Builders Association, said bank lending has tightened for future projects but contractors have plenty of work underway and are always looking for more workers.

And the competition hosted by Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 44 is one way to foster that excitement needed to attract young workers, he said.

“These are amazing,” White said of the Local 44 competition. “These are great programs to expose people to the trades.”

Brett Wideman, the business manager for Local 44, said his high school offered welding, car repair and wood shop.

Now with budget cuts, most students don’t get even basic exposure to those activities to see if they have any interest.

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“I can’t stress enough that it’s a great career,” said Wideman, who formerly held the same training director job as Krels. “It provides a way to support a family, a living wage. I don’t have a single regret.”

White agrees that exposure is the key, and his organization has worked to promote the trades at area high schools.

On Saturday, Spokane Home Builders is hosting an event for dozens of local youths in which they will get the chance to build garden sheds at East Valley High School.

Participants will walk away with a tool belt and bucket full of tools, and hopefully, a good feeling about a potential career.

“The industry is trying to be a part of a solution,” White said. “Not all of these students are going to enter the field. But whether you are union or nonunion, kids will make choices. Young adults are looking for a career. They could come into the construction trade right now.”

Apprentice path

While apprentices were competing this past week for a chance to take on the best pipe fitters in the country, they had to first overcome a competition of sorts to first be selected into the apprenticeship program.

Krels said the local union receives more than 80 applicants a year and can only take 10 to 15 apprentices at a time. The apprentices then work with journeyman plumbers for five years before they become journeyman plumbers themselves.

To achieve that training, apprentices must complete 10,000 work hours and 1,200 to 1,800 hours of classroom instruction.

In the old days, apprentices were required to attend classes after working a full day. But, that didn’t always work out, Krels said.

Apprentices now take a week off every five or six weeks to complete their classroom instruction.

“There is so much to learn,” Krels said. “And, the industry is constantly evolving and changing.”

But here’s the kicker. While it may take longer to become a journeyman plumber than obtaining a college degree, the workers get paid a living wage as they learn, he said.

“The motto is, earn while you learn,” Krels said.

A first-year apprentice can earn more than $40,000 a year and receive raises from 2.5% to 5% every year. They also immediately start earning a pension and health insurance.

“It’s not an easier path than college,” Krels said. “But you can either pay someone else to get an education or you can get paid to receive an education.”

Contractors approach the local union for whatever level of workers they need. If they are roughing in some plumbing, they can rely on first-year apprentices.

“Contractors know what they are getting and they ask for what they need,” Krels said.

At the same time, journeymen tell Krels what the apprentices need to know and then he develops curriculum to fit that need, he said.

“If you want to go into engineering … you can do hands-on training before you go to school,” he said. “It’s easier to teach someone who has already worked with (computer-aided design) than to say, ‘Here’s CAD, now draw a plumbing system.’”

The union is working to expand its apprenticeship program to pump more workers into the system, said Wideman, the local’s business manager.

“There is no sign of slowing down in the next five years. We are seeing lots of folks moving this way and industry will follow,” he said.

With a five-year window to train apprentices, the union is in a constant race to keep enough skilled workers available for area projects, he said.

“Our challenge is to backfill an aging workforce and yet still maintain our jobs and meet the demand,” he said. “We are walking a tight line right now.”

Last week’s competition forced apprentices to show off their skills in welding, plumbing and pipefitting. They were graded on their safety, accuracy of measurements, neatness and appearance.

“In our opinion, competition breeds success,” Wideman said. “That’s what we are trying to showcase.”

Krels now works with apprentices doing the same things he started 26 years ago.

Krels’ grandfather preceded him into the trades, but it was his uncle who convinced him to finally commit at age 21. Krels said his only regret is that he wishes he had started at a younger age.

“It’s the best job in the industry,” he said, “to train and share the knowledge with the next generation.”