Every two years, the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Ironworkers Union (Ironworkers International) hosts a National Apprentice Competition. The contest, first held in Pittsburgh in 1996, consists of eight different competitions: a written test, instrument layout, welding, burning, knot tying, rod tying, ornamental and the column climb.

“It’s an opportunity for the local unions to have a friendly competition for their apprentice members and determine who is the top three,” says Ed Abbott, general organizer, Ironworkers International.

Competitions start at the local union level, moving to an annual district council competition, which comprises several states and territories. Winners then go to the national contest. The 2016 competition, hosted by the Texas & Mid-South District Council and held at Local 84/135, had a total of 79 registered competitors, including 69 field apprentices and 10 shop apprentices, for two separate contests in which the top three in each division were recognized.

“I met with all these guys [in Houston]. I told them, ‘You guys are the top 79 out of the over 15,000 apprentices in the ironworkers’ industry,’ ” Abbott says. “So to represent your local union and district council and go to the national competition, even if you finish 79th, that’s pretty prestigious.”

Ironworkers International also hosts a coordinators’ meeting in conjunction with the contest, providing an opportunity for the apprentice coordinators throughout the U.S. and Canada to come together for a couple days and discuss important issues and share ideas, Abbott says.

Before the event, apprentices also spent a half day in a leadership class as the majority of the apprentices who have reached this level likely will go on to become foremen or supervisors down the road, according to Abbot. Sponsors of the event donate various prizes for the winners, such as welding equipment. “It’s not like it’s a trip for two to Hawaii or anything. It’s tools and things that you would use in the ironworkers’ industry,” Abbott notes. For example, winning first place in the field contest brought a cash prize, a welding machine, a power grinder and a custom-made belt buckle. 


Name: Sheldon Trieb 
Age: 33
Hometown: Tonganoxie, Kan.
Affiliation: Ironworkers Local 10, Kansas City, Mo. 
Skill: Ironworker

On his way to journeyman certification, Sheldon Trieb is in his third and last year in the apprenticeship program at MoKan Ironworkers Apprenticeship and Training Center at the Local 10 union.

ENR: Why did you decide to compete?

Trieb: Actually, there are a couple of reasons. To the guys down at our [apprenticeship training] school, this is like the Super Bowl for them. Also, my best friend is actually my boss [Christopher Smith, Local 10, Kansas City]. He won it in 2012. So, when I got in, I had a goal set that he wasn’t going to be the only one that had won it from Kansas City.

How did you prepare for the competition?

The biggest thing I had to work on was the rebar tying because I’d never tied rebar, so I had to really focus on that because, in the competition, that’s where you gain a majority of points. I did a lot of that at home on weeknights. Leading up to the competition for a month or so, it was every night. I’d spend an hour or so out in the shop at my house, just tying and tying so I could get fluid with it and get the muscle memory going.

What has winning meant for you?

It meant that I could go to work and not get harassed by my buddy who had won it—I never would have heard the end of it from him! On Saturday, when we had to tie the rods and then climb the column, I made sure I won those outright. I was a professional motorbike racer for a while, so being competitive and winning is something I kind of took for granted. I went down there thinking I would win it and wanting to win, but, when it finally happened, it was just a big weight off my shoulders and I was excited. I knew it meant good things for our Kansas City local. It was kind of surreal. But going to work every day, nobody treats you any different once you get back on the jobsite.

What is your opinion of construction as a career?

I know that getting in to the ironworkers union was probably the best thing I could have ever done, not just for the pay scale but also  because I make more money than quite a few of my friends who went to college and are in non-construction fields. But our benefits are so good, I don’t know if I could get any better anywhere else. I couldn’t be happier with it, really. It’s all stuff that I more or less like to do anyway, except for maybe when it’s 5°F outside in the wintertime.

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