Apprenticeship open house offers options

Photo by Michael Kelly Instructor Roger Dick looks on as apprentice Kyle Wolfe applies a weld to a pipe on the training floor at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 168. The union held an apprenticeship open house Thursday at its facility on Gilman Avenue in Marietta.

MARIETTA — Behind heavy red clear plastic drapes, students in a dozen booths lining the walls shot out sparks and smoke as they practiced welding.

The work went on at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 168 training facility on Gilman Avenue Thursday while in an adjacent room, out of the noise and cold of the training floor, people snacked, talked and laughed as the local marked National Apprenticeship Week with an open house.

In an environment where college students often incur crushing debt for a less-than-certain future, and where a high school diploma can barely guarantee a minimum wage job, an apprenticeship sounds almost too good to be true.

“For a pipefitter, it’s a five-year program at no cost to the students, and it can get you nearly two years of college credit,” said Bill Hutchinson, business manager for the Parkersburg-Marietta Building and Construction Trades Council.

Pipefitting is one of several trade apprenticeships available, and with natural gas pipelines and power generation plants in the proposal stages in the area, it’s a trade with a strong future, he said.

“It’s a lot like going to school,” he said.

Apprentices work under supervision of skilled tradesmen during the day, when jobs are available, and practice and study evenings and weekends. Sometimes training is held in multi-day blocks.

Pipefitting includes a lot of welding, Hutchinson said, pointing to several configurations of welded pipe on a table in the training room, but the training also includes safety procedures, “a lot of math,” rigging and other complex skills.

Apprentices are paid while they are working, usually at a fixed percentage of the rate paid to journeymen, tradespeople who have successfully completed an apprenticeship.

Most of it is construction work, although some pipefitters get permanent jobs, and for the most part it involves going from one job to another.

“Employers and contractors call the hall and ask for workers. It’s a lifestyle, going from one job to the next,” Hutchinson said.

Christina Zimmer, a communications specialist for Affiliated Construction Trades of Ohio, said apprentices are trained to national standards.

“You can go anywhere, and we’re always adapting when new things come along,” she said.

Jeff Smith has been in the trade for more than 10 years and has been a pipefitting instructor for five years. In a quiet spot off the training floor, he said the quality of people coming into the program is good.

“I’ve got nothing bad to say about the potential skill level of these people,” he said. “They have the will and the desire. Historically, this area has a great work ethic.”

Smith said the future of the trade includes work that will be more complex and demanding, less manual as automated equipment becomes more cost effective.

“It’s becoming more difficult because there are more processes to master,” he said. “It’s like everything else, you just need to know more.”

Caleb Gammon took a break from one of the welding booths to talk about his career choice. Gammon, 24 and a lifelong Marietta resident, has worked in welding and other jobs. He likes the outlook for his apprenticed trade.

“I like the non-traditional idea of it, and there’s really a lifetime of possibilities. I can be a welder, a pipefitter, an estimator, a supervisor, and I can count this training time towards a bachelors degree if I want that,” he said.

He’s just come off a completed job in Lewisville, part of a crew installing a residual filter that involved welding 24-inch pipe.

“It was really cool. You walk on the job and you’re instantly accepted as a brother. That’s never been the case for me before, it was always like you had to prove yourself. The older guys, they really want you to learn, to carry on the skill,” he said.

He was in the training facility to do some practice while waiting for the next job.

“The training center is always open,” he said.

For information on available apprenticeships, contact the trades council at 304-424-6443 or ACT at 614-228-5446.