Apprenticeship programs build a company’s workforce at a reasonable cost, while also educating the next generation.
Why would a plumbing contractor hire an apprentice? How about this reason: It’s good for business.
“Apprentices keep a plumbing shop competitive,” says Randy Lorge, who instructs apprentices at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wisconsin. The edge comes from apprenticeship wages being comparatively low — first-year apprentices make about 40 percent of a journeyman plumber’s pay. “So there is an economic advantage to having apprentices working for you. Plus you get to teach them the way your shop does things, which makes your shop more efficient.”
SETTING UP A PROGRAM
If a contractor values operating efficiency and low operating costs, a plumbing apprenticeship program should be part of the business plan. A program begins when a contractor contacts a technical college or union hall to arrange an interview of an applicant by an apprenticeship committee. Wisconsin has more than 100 of these trade committees.
The committees are comprised of union or nonunion plumbers, along with business association representatives. Committee members assess and interview apprenticeship applicants and recommend those deemed suitable for the program. After an apprenticeship contract is signed — stipulating wages and the amount of required training — the committee and a training center work closely with the state Department of Workforce Development to monitor an apprentice’s progress.
In Wisconsin, the program runs for five years. Across the country, most plumbing apprenticeship programs are either four or five years long. At the end of the five years, an apprentice will have completed 572 instructional hours while on the clock and another 260 hours in a classroom without pay. This is in addition to a required 8,000 hours on the job in hands-on learning.
“All of those numbers are required by the apprenticeship contract, and are recorded and reported to the committee,” Lorge says. “When an apprentice completes all that, they can write a ticket for a job in Wisconsin and in every bordering state for sure.” Some 100-150 apprentices are enrolled in the Fox Valley program each year.
To ensure that the work of apprentices on the job is well supervised — in other words, that the apprentice is being trained and not just worked — Wisconsin stipulates ratios of journeymen plumbers to apprentices. The ratio varies according to the size of a business. For example, if a shop has two licensed journeymen on staff, it can hire one apprentice. With three journeymen, two apprentices are allowed. Four journeymen qualify a shop for three apprentices, and so on.
Before he became an apprenticeship instructor at Fox Valley 18 years ago, Lorge was a third-generation plumber who began his career as an apprentice. Not every apprentice applicant has such a pedigree.
Most are young people just out of high school and idly looking around for a career. Minimum requirements are to be 18 years old with either a high school diploma or a GED. Sixteen-year-olds in school can enroll in a pre-apprenticeship program. A general knowledge test is given with a minimum passing score required of test-takers. If the test is not passed, classes are given so an applicant can improve his, say, math or language skills and be retested.
The average age of apprentices is 21 or 22. Yet Lorge is instructing a 49-year-old with a restricted plumber’s license — he can work on water softeners only — who wants to become a journeymen. “And I have a good share of young people in my classes who have four-year degrees from college but decided to pursue a trade.” During Lorge’s tenure at the technical college, one female apprentice has enrolled. She completed the program and is working in a family shop.
August Winter & Sons is an Appleton mechanical contracting and fabricating firm heavily invested in apprenticeships. It employs about 10 apprentices at any given time, with half that many in pre-apprenticeship training. Project superintendent Tim Schumacher says candidates for the positions are sourced from a variety of places. Applications for the program are widely distributed. “And some co-workers have relatives with kids who want to get started in the trade. So they start as pre-apprentices and, if it all works out, they move up.”
Schumacher himself started as a pre-apprentice and then an apprentice 24 years ago. He says at least 95 percent of August Winter & Sons apprentices complete the course and become licensed plumbers. What then? “We normally keep them. That’s our goal. We groom them for our work and try to keep them.”
DON’T HURRY THE PROCESS
With the plumbing industry evolving from lead to copper to polyethylene piping, from cast iron to PVC for drainpipes, “it is a constantly changing trade,” Lorge says, making a case for a five-year apprenticeship. “There is a lot to learn about materials and techniques. Our courses go into interpretation of code rules and laws. We take the laws that have been written by lawyers and break them down into a layman’s terms and show how to design systems that are compliant with the codes.”
Contractors shouldn’t try to hurry the process, Lorge counsels. “Probably the biggest problem a contractor has is the attitude of ‘We have to get this done right now.’ As a result, apprentice training is set aside. Sometimes an apprentice is assigned work that a journeyman should be doing, in violation of the apprenticeship contract.” If a state inspector catches a contractor bending that rule, repercussions follow. Between the fourth and fifth years, the policy is liberalized so an apprentice can work independently if they are taking additional coursework.
Plumbing apprentices are not just a good deal for plumbing contractors. Schumacher believes they are wonderful opportunities for young people. “You can start at 18 and in just five years be making $70,000 to $80,000 a year — and with no expense. You can go to college and come away a hundred thousand dollars in debt.”