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Plumbers by Day, Apprentices at Night

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It’s 5:30 on a Tuesday afternoon and David Nolfi Jr. files into the Local 396 training center of the Plumbers and Pipefitters union in Boardman.

As many others return home from work, the second part of Nolfi’s day is just beginning. Earlier, the fifth-year plumbers apprentice had spent his day installing the plumbing infrastructure at The Enclave, the student housing project under construction along Wick Avenue at Youngstown State University.

“It runs in the family,” Nolfi says of the plumbing trade and his family’s company, State Line Plumbing & Heating in New Middletown. “My father and grandfather were plumbers. There are a lot of them in my family.”

His family had given Nolfi, who entered the plumbing business five years ago, a basic understanding of how the business works. Still, there was much he didn’t know, so developing the skills necessary to become a journeyman plumber takes time and perseverance.

“You’ve got to know how to figure something out by yourself,” Nolfi says. “When we start out as first-years and we get out there, even when they tell us what to do, we still don’t know what to do.”

This means investing time in on-the-job training and classroom work through Local 396’s program, he says. As a fifth-year apprentice, Nolfi is close to achieving his journeyman credentials. That demanded hundreds of hours of hands-on work in the field and classroom study.

“They teach us to weld – we have to learn to weld our own gas lines, for instance – and we take drafting classes where they show us the ins and outs of blueprints,” Nolfi says. “So after a day of work, we do our additional training here.”

Nolfi says that apprentices must have an interest in hands-on work and a knack for organization and planning. “You have to be very good at planning,” he says. “Organizing the material doesn’t sound huge. But if you have six guys working and you mess up on ordering material, that’s a lot of money to the contractor.”

Education and training for a younger workforce in the plumbing and pipefitting trades are essential for the future of the craft because the demand for employees with such skills is expected to increase significantly over the next decade, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of jobs among plumbers and pipefitters is projected to grow 16%, or an increase of 75,800 positions, by 2026, according to BLS statistics.

This pace of growth is “much faster than the average for all occupations,” the agency states, noting that new construction, building maintenance, and repair work stand to drive increased demand in the field. Last year, 480,600 were employed as plumbers and pipefitters, the BLS reports. As of May 2016, there were 14,070 plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters employed in Ohio who earned a median wage of $51,450.

“A first-year apprentice makes $12.10 an hour,” says Rick Boyarko, the joint apprenticeship coordinator for Local 396. In the fifth year of the program, the pay rises to just above $27 an hour while journeymen earn $33.50 an hour. And that doesn’t include a generous benefits package.

Boyarko says there are 61 in various stages in their apprenticeships enrolled in the JAC training program, which includes plumbing, pipefitting, and heating and air conditioning programs.

“It’s a good number for us,” he says.

Most apprentices are enrolled in the plumbing and pipefitting programs, he adds.

Even more heartening is that interest in these programs has gained traction over the last year, Boyarko says, as seen by the number of applicants seeking to enter Local 396’s training initiatives.

“I’ve been here just over a year,” he says. “Last year, we had about 50 people apply through the whole year. Through the first three months of this year, we had 57 apply,” including about a half-dozen seniors in high school.

The application process is competitive, Boyarko says, and applicants are ranked based on their scores on an initial aptitude test and a follow-up interview. “If you score a 70 or better on the test, then you get an interview,” he says.

Then, the committee determines how many apprentices to accept. “Say you have 20 interviewees, and you rank them. We then determine how many we’ll take – maybe just 10 out of 20 – and call the top ones and accept them into the program,” he says. “You start working instantly and begin schooling in September.”

From there, apprentices are required to perform 1,600 hours in the field and 230 hours of classroom work each year, Boyarko says. “It’s a five-year program, and you can’t advance your apprenticeship without this,” he says. Completion rate is also high, he says, noting fewer than 5% of the apprentices fail to see it through to earn their journeyman credentials.

The plumbers and pipefitters training lab consists of six burning stations where apprentices train on oxygen and acetylene torches used to burn through pipe, Boyarko says. In addition, there are 20 welding booths where students can practice their techniques. “There are three types we do: arc welding, tig welding and mig welding,” he says. “We have all of the proper equipment to practice with.”

Among the classes required are pipe trade mathematics, job safety and health, related science, plan reading, and computer-aided design, or CAD, classes. To qualify, applicants must be 18 or older, have earned a high school diploma or GED, and pass a drug test.

During the first two years of the apprentice program, students generally receive the same fundamental training that includes a heavy reliance on mathematics and hand-eye coordination skills. “You’re learning the basics that all three trades need to know,” Boyarko says. “Once you get into your third year, then you can choose plumbing, HVAC or pipefitting,” he says.

Plumbers, for example, must learn installation, fitting, soldering, threading – all from the ground up, Boyarko says. “Hot water tanks, tying water lines together through an entire building – they learn how to do it all.”

The union funds all training and provides it at no cost to the apprentices, Boyarko says.

Demand for plumbers and pipefitters is especially robust right now, Boyarko says, noting almost 300 members of Local 396 are working on the $900 million Lordstown Energy Center in Trumbull County. Others have worked on large projects such as oil and gas cryogenic plants.

Brandon Suchora, a fifth-year pipefitter apprentice at Alcon Mechanical Piping Inc. in Niles, says his first major job came during his first year as an apprentice. “The Kensington cryogenic plant was my first big job,” he says, referring to the oil and gas processing station in southern Columbiana County. “That was an experience.”

Initially, Suchora had designs on becoming a welder, but soon gravitated toward the pipefitting craft. “I was at Youngstown State University in civil engineering,” he says. “Then, I heard about this program and I was looking to get into welding.”

Since he’s joined the pipefitting trade, he’s worked on major projects such as Kensington and another cryogenic plant at Hickory Bend in Springfield Township in Mahoning County.

“I’m working now at Ohio Star Forge installing process piping,” he says. “On-the-job training is irreplaceable.”

Pictured: Plumbing apprentices such as David Nolfi Jr. are required to have 1,600 hours of field work during their five-year apprenticeship.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.