Training Plumbers, Steamfitters, and Pipefitters

Jan 4, 2016 | Construction, Education, Oil & Gas

Rindi White

JMichael Luhrs welding hot pass.

Union apprenticeship programs invest in workforce

Nearly 23 percent of people who work in Alaska are part of a union, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Alaska has the second-highest percentage of union workers in the nation, behind only New York.

Several reasons are behind that number, from a higher than average per capita percentage of unionized government workers to a prevalence of union employees in the construction industry, which is strong in Alaska.

Around the state, union apprenticeship programs are in place to keep turning out a skilled workforce and keep the percentage of overall union workers higher than national averages. In the coming months Alaska Business Monthly will explore the state’s more than twenty apprenticeship programs and their regional training opportunities.

Union apprenticeship programs constitute the largest private industry sector training industry in the state, says Mike Andrews, director of the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s Alaska Workforce Development Enterprise. “It’s really fundamental that Alaska continues to do what it does well, and that’s having a homegrown workforce,” he says.

“Because the union apprenticeship programs and joint apprenticeship training committees have been around for so long, it’s a very mature system,” Andrews says. “When you look at the different training programs, instructors, equipment, and other things they have in place, that’s the largest investment from the private sector in any industry in the state.”

That’s why it works, he says. And it’s likely why wages in Alaska are higher than average and tend to stay that way.

Michael Luhrs preparing to run root pass.

Training Pipeline Workers

John Plutt, president and training director of Fairbanks’ United Association Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Local 375, says his site is the natural training ground for future pipeline welders, should the state proceed with the Alaska LNG project. The project would include a gas treatment plant on the North Slope, an eight-hundred-mile pipeline to Southcentral Alaska, and a liquefaction plant where the gas would be prepared for efficient transport to export markets.

According to the Alaska LNG Project, a partnership between the state and potential developers, the project has a price tag of between $45 billion and $65 billion, making it the largest single investment project in the state’s history. It would also require between nine thousand and fifteen thousand jobs during construction. Many of those jobs will be in the construction field, including plumbers, pipeline welders, and pipefitters.

Plutt says UA Local 375 is about four hundred members strong, with most of those members actively working during the construction season. It has ninety apprentices going through its five-year apprentice program, plus an eighteen-week accelerated pipe welding class held each fall. Welding and field work takes place at the UA Local 375’s welding facility that is part of the Fairbanks Pipeline Training Center.

“If they want to weld the pipeline, I suggest they come in and apply to our [apprenticeship] program,” Plutt says. The apprenticeship program gives potential pipeline welders a well-rounded base of knowledge for their eventual career.

“If they want to do more of a focus on welding, they can do that as well,” Plutt says.

This year’s accelerated pipe welding class had fourteen members, the largest class so far, he says. The class size could readily accommodate more students with additional instructors, he says.

Gabriel Stutz welding root pass.

More Training Makes Better Workers

Apprenticeship has a large role in the future of the union, says Anchorage-based UA Local 367 union organizer Brandon McGuire—but figuring out how to train future employees while balancing trainees with available jobs is tricky.

“We look at the projected manpower needs. We don’t want to have a baby boomer event going on again. That’s what we’re looking at now. The baby boomers are going away and we’re going to have a big chunk of the knowledge leaving,” McGuire says.

The Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, a group set up with each union apprenticeship program, is an eight-member team with half the members made up of union employees and the other half employers in the plumbing, steam fitting, pipe fitting, and welding fields, decides twice each year how many apprentices to take on.

If someone wants to become a plumber through UA Local 367, they fill out an application requesting to join the apprenticeship program, McGuire says. The union generally has openings for around twenty apprentices each year at its West Potter Drive location.

The applicants go through interviews with the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee members and the top applicants are selected. There are a few caveats, McGuire says—if a female applies and isn’t among the group of top applicants, the training committee may make an extra space for her because the union wants to diversify its membership. Legacy candidates-applicants whose parents or family members are union members-don’t automatically get selected, McGuire says, although the longevity of the union involvement does factor into the final decision whether to select an applicant or not.

“It might impact the score because you can see there’s longevity in that, but the theory behind it is that everyone has an opportunity [to get in]. It’s not a country club,” he says.

Applicants brought in during the spring go through a one-week orientation where they learn about safety in the workplace and other important items; then they’re sent out to job sites as a “40-percent apprentice,” or an apprentice making 40 percent of the wages of a journeyman.

On the job, first-year apprentices mostly get the low-skilled jobs, like getting materials where they need to be, and do some side-by-side training with journeymen.

In the winter, the first-year apprentices have a six-week training period where they go to school from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays. There’s no cost to applicants for the training, as it’s part of their “fringe benefit” package through the union. The cost for training is paid for by working union members. The apprentices typically aren’t able to work during the training window. McGuire says they may be able to collect unemployment, however.

“It’s only six weeks long. They can plan accordingly,” he says.

Following the training period, apprentices can go back out to work until the training period the following year. The apprentices are required to complete roughly 2,000 hours of work each year or to have five years and 10,000 hours logged by the time the apprenticeship is complete. About 1,200 of those logged hours are in the classroom as part of the training, McGuire says.

“So, roughly 8,800 hours is on-the-job training, where the individual is getting training and getting paid a decent, livable wage,” he says.

Trainees start at the 40-percent mark, he says, but for every six months and one thousand hours the apprentices work, they get a 5 percent bump in wages. Beginning apprentice wages are about $24 an hour, plus benefits, he says. Applicants will be making a living wage from the start.

That’s more than many entry-level workers are able to make and more than non-union plumbers that might be working on the same job, he says.

After they’ve completed the five years and ten thousand hours of training, McGuire says apprentices take the state and municipal plumbing examination. State requirements for a journeyman plumber’s license are lower—four years and eight thousand hours, he says, but the union program is geared to be more stringent to produce high-quality results.

“Our guys are more qualified, they’re better trained. They should be able to go to a job site and knock the work out cleaner, more efficiently, and better all the way around,” McGuire says.

Jimmie Platz III welding filler pass.

Building Blocks of Learning

As with any school program, the apprentices learn various skills that build on each other over the course of the five-year program. Byron Flippin, the UA Local 367 training coordinator, says apprentices enter the program with a range of experience—some have no experience whatsoever and might not be able to read a tape measure accurately, while others have some knowledge of the field.

What They Learn

Year One

  • Read a tape measure
  • Basic use and care of tools
  • Valves port and fasteners
  • Using a grinder
  • Pipe joining methods
  • Setting up an oxygen-acetylene torch

Year Two

  • Proper pipe joining techniques
  • Soldering and brazing techniques for larger-diameter pipe
  • Crane usage
  • Proper knots used for lifting and transferring pipe on a job site

Year Three

  • How to set up boiler control systems
  • Pump alignment
  • Refrigerants
  • Refrigeration piping
  • Plumbing theory
  • “Green Awareness” week, learning about the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED program

Year Four

  • (Typically seven weeks instead of six)
  • Two weeks spent learning to use a crane to pick, match, and fit pipe
  • Understanding codes
  • When to use different flanges and valves
  • Fabrication and welding

Year Five

  • Brazing copper pipe for use in hospitals and dentist’s offices
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules
  • Preparing for state and municipal plumbing exams

Every apprentice, even if he or she wants to be a pipeline welder or pipefitter, is required to obtain a plumber’s license from the state and the Municipality of Anchorage.

“A lot of the work in Anchorage is plumbing,” Flippin says. “A lot of the guys need to have plumbing licenses because a lot of our contractors require it … and plumbing guys work all year. The more skills you have, the more work you’re going to do.”

UA Local 367 has about 750 active members, about half of which are working in the building trades in the Anchorage region and half are in the metal trades, working for Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility, ENSTAR Natural Gas, or the Municipality of Anchorage. A handful more work with other unions or in the Lower 48.

The UA Local 262 in Juneau is a much smaller group, with about 80 total members and 13 apprentices currently going through training, says training coordinator and apprentice instructor Brad Austin.

Garrett Tucker welding root pass.

Training Trainers to Train

Flippin works with two full-time and three part-time instructors. The apprenticeship classes run consecutively, beginning with the fifth-year training in September and ending with the first-year classes in April or May. Training all five skill levels takes most of the year. The trainers also attend yearly training sessions held at the national United Association University at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“It’s only one week—I really wish it were longer,” Flippin says. “None of us are professional instructors. We enjoy the training.”

UA Local 367 business agent Aaron Plikat says Flippin and the other instructors were carefully selected for the job of training apprentices.

“They are experts in our industry and they were leaders in our field before coming in (the training program). They really showed an extreme knowledge of our industry,” he says.

Flippin says during the one-week training event in Michigan, he takes classes on everything from dealing with troubled apprentices to fiduciary classes that clarify how budgetary reports should be handled.

From a Dead-End Job to a Career Path

Zack Talbert, a fifth-year apprentice with UA Local 367, says he was working “a dead-end job in a warehouse” in Anchorage when a cousin going through the UA Local 367 apprenticeship program encouraged him to apply.

“My family has been in it since I was a kid,” Talbert says of the union. His uncle and his cousin are union employees and his father, Larry Talbert, is the union’s business manager. “It’s much, much better than the warehouse. It’s guaranteed wages and I feel like I’m actually accomplishing something, rather than just moving boxes around,” he says.

Talbert says being in the apprenticeship program and on a path to a lifelong career has meant economic stability for him. Instead of living paycheck-to-paycheck and wondering how he was going to pay his bills, he’s been able to pay for basics along with saving money.

“I bought my first house, I’m driving a brand new car, I’m able to eat good food,” he says. “I’m not struggling with my bills anymore. It’s nice to have some security.”

Talbert says there have been a few periods where he’s been laid off-normally just for a week or two, although once it was for a month.

“I saved up accordingly and it worked out. It does happen, you just prepare for it,” he says.

The first couple years of low-skilled work were a challenge, but Talbert says he was mentally prepared to be the “gopher” and, with time, he’s moved to more skilled tasks.

“It wasn’t grueling labor or anything. Slowly, they give you more and more responsibilities here and there. Now they’ll give me a task, and, if it’s not something I’ve done before, they’ll pair me with a journeyman. But I can do pretty much all of it,” he says.

Apprentices are required to take whatever job is available to them, whether it’s working new construction or doing residential repair work. Once he makes journeyman, Talbert will have the option to turn down jobs he’s not interested in. But for now, he says, he likes taking the luck of the draw.

“I might be at the same job site for a couple of months,” he says. “It helps with the monotony.”

Now, he says he’s working for Superior Plumbing on a remodeling project at Alaska Regional Hospital. After he gets his journeyman’s license, Talbert says he might choose the new construction jobs and let other apprentices tackle the remodeling work.

Overall, Talbert says he’s proud to be part of the apprentice program and have an opportunity to make a good career for himself. It’s not a path many of his friends are on, he says, but he’s trying to encourage them to change.

“They’re mostly still working in jobs that don’t have forward progression,” he says. “I recommend [the apprenticeship program] as often as I can.”

Building a Workforce, a Balancing Act

It’s no simple thing to get into a union apprenticeship program. They’re competitive, says Andrews. There’s a reason: the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee doesn’t want to create more workers than it has jobs to fill.

“There’s nothing worse than a young man or woman ready to get into a trade and wanting to make a bunch of money, but there’s no work,” Flippin says. “We’ve all been laid off a number of times. There’s no crystal ball, so you really can’t tell for sure [what the job market will be like]. We just try to put our heads together.”

Balancing job seekers with jobs hasn’t always worked. In the ‘80s, when trans-Alaska oil pipeline construction ended, there was a glut of workers and no jobs. As industry officials talk about and plan for a liquefied natural gas, or LNG, pipeline being possibly built in the near future, that balance is being scrutinized from every angle.

“The whole thing with industry is, if you don’t have the work, you can’t train the workforce,” Andrews says.

“We kind of have to know ahead of time so we can prepare the workforce,” Plutt says. “If we knew now that in five years we’re going to need [workers] we could definitely ramp up. But we need some time ahead to do that.”

UA Local 375 is part of an effort to build a pipeline-construction workforce. In addition to training apprentices and holding accelerated pipeline welding classes, the union participates in a yearly pipeline construction training event held at the Fairbanks Pipeline Training Center. It’s a joint training event with members from the pipefitters, teamsters, operators, and laborers unions. The training event allows the trades to practice working together in a mock pipeline construction event.

The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and the Associated General Contractors of Alaska have discussed project spacing-staggering project dates to avoid overloading the job market and to allow more trained workers to be prepared for potential pipeline development.

“They want to stage it so it doesn’t become some overblown thing that requires Outside workers. We’ve gone through this before when we crashed in the ‘80s. They’re very cautious about that these days,” Andrews says.

That’s in part why Governor Bill Walker issued an administrative order November 9, 2015, requiring at least 15 percent of project hours on state projects to be completed by registered apprentices and setting a target of 15 percent registered apprentices working on future oil and mineral development projects on state lands.

“Registered apprenticeships expand our supply of highly trained workers and give Alaskans the training they need to earn good middle-class wages,” Walker says. “This is truly a win-win for the state and for working families.”

Andrews says using registered apprentices won’t replace journeymen on the jobs, but it might replace out-of-state workers who travel to Alaska for employment on larger projects. He added that, in addition to building a strong workforce for a potential pipeline, it connects to Alaska’s future.

“Energy efficiency and renewable energy-we’re going to need folks who can put in that equipment,” he says, noting that those jobs take similar skills to those needed for pipeline construction.


This article first appeared in the January 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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