Originally held in the 1950s and 1960s but discontinued for 25 years, the annual apprentice competition held by the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the U.S. and Canada—known as the UA—displays the skills of the newest generation of union members while helping the union leadership to gauge the new plumbers’ prowess.
After the contest’s long hiatus, the UA revived it nine years ago, under the direction of President William Hite. Contestants from all 50 states, Canada and Australia have competed. Hite reinstituted the contest “to see how well unions across the country are learning different skills,” says Jerry O’Leary, a retired UA employee who helps with the competition. “The purpose of the contest is to improve our skills overall as a trade.”The competition tests the skills of plumbers, pipefitters, sprinkler fitters, HVAC service technicians and welders. UA’s international apprenticeship committee determines what the contest will be like each year. Competitors progress by winning within their own local unions, then moving on to state and regional contests—the latter usually has about 200 contestants—and, finally, to the national competition level (see story below).
The national competition, held at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Mich., includes sponsoring vendors that support the event with donations of materials so contestants can work on their competition modules. At the same time, instructors for UA’s training program attend the event to learn new techniques. “We set up everything on a Saturday, and the contest goes until 5 p.m. the following Wednesday afternoon. On Saturday, competitors take a written, 100-question, 90-minute test on theory,” O’Leary says.
After the theory test, contestants practice CPR technique, on which they then are tested. Next, the judges interview the apprentices on best practices for change orders, handling difficult workplace situations and other aspects of the job. Contestants manage their own blueprints for the contest project, which includes hands-on installation of bathroom facilities and other tasks.
“If they are working in an unsafe manner, or are not taking care of tools, points are deducted,” O’Leary says. Winners earn prizes, from gift cards to tools, all donated by sponsors. Following the contest, UA creates a white paper detailing best practices.
Young Dad’s Victory Makes His Kids Proud
Wade Blocker has been working in plumbing since July 2012, but the Chicago-based Local 130 member recently took his written test to become a journeyman plumber and will take his practical test in December. After progressing through three levels of the UA apprentice competition—an in-house test, as well as state and regional contests—Blocker moved to the national level, where he earned top honors in this year’s UA apprenticeship competition.
ENR: How did it feel to be competing in your trade at the national level?
Blocker: Honestly, it was tiring to do the competition, working nine-hour and 10-hour days—and your score depends, in part, on timing. It’s also very stressful, since you are trying not to screw anything up. I knew the competition would be close, and I figured [the gold medal] was going to be between me and a few other guys. But, looking back, it was a lot of fun getting to meet all the guys from all over the country. Not to mention, it provides a little boost for your career. It’s a lot of work, but it was worth it.
How do you like construction as a career?
I like construction, but getting into it just kind of fell into my lap. I was a garbageman before I got into construction. I made the change because I got tired of the early sanitation workdays, and vacations are impossible to take in that job. I had a buddy who was a union plumber and encouraged me to get into the trade. He actually trained me as a plumber.
What has winning meant for you?
I’ve gotten a lot of prizes, and gift cards from sponsors of the competition keep coming. I just got one in the mail the other day.
What are your career goals?
Providing for family is important to me, since I am married with three kids, ages 6, 3 and 2, which made it fun as I went through the competition. Each time I won a different part of the competition, it was cool to see my kids’ faces when I told them. I’d come home and they’d ask me if I won, and I’d say, “I did.”