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Apprenticeships and Affordable Higher Education in Iowa

posted on March 18, 2009 at 10:23 AM

John Oatts, Training Director, Plumbers and Steamfitters local 33, Des Moines:

"Well definitely, this isn't your father's apprentice program anymore. The requirements and academic requirements that we have for our training program are, are a lot more stringent than they were even ten years ago."

Those entering the apprenticeship program at the Plumbers and Steamfitters local 33 on Des Moines' southside, attend a five-year study program. They must complete 240 classroom hours a year –which includes both lectures ... and hands-on training. Their studies rotate between 1 week in school ... and six weeks of paid on-the-job training which could include welding … pipefitting … and med gas installation that goes into hospitals like this one under construction in West Des Moines.

The cost of the education is paid for through a partnership: money from both union members and various contractors who hire local 33 workers: like A.J. Allen Mechanical Contractors in Des Moines.

Fred Miller, VP of A.J. Allen Construction: "The apprenticeship program is very important. It's the backbone of the whole industry. We could take the leadership to train our own employees but then they would only work for us. But in the, the union, where we share employees. It works better. We share the training amongst the contractors. We're all sharing the same skilled labor."

Since January 1, 2009, this skilled workforce in plumbing, heating and mechanical have been required to obtain a state license in addition to the various, other mandatory certifications necessary to operate certain equipment.

This year, 230 apprentices are trained here at the Plumbers and Steamfitters 30,000 square foot training facility. The school also owns a mobile training unit to certify welders at a job site.

The, union-run, Local #33 program takes students from the 57 Iowa counties in local's district.

Bob Dobson is a 4th year apprentice from Sioux City.

Bob Dobson, Apprentice, Sioux City: "I'd known uh, you know, right out of school that I'd probably wasn't necessarily college material. I knew I wanted to work with my hands. I knew I wanted to get into some type of trade. I'm a pipefitter. Ah where we uh learn a lot of welding -- uh, do a lot of measurements, take offs, that sort of things. A lot of steam and hydronic work."

Ryan Wierson, Apprentice, Nevada: "I'm a little surprised at some of the math and the science. There's, there's more to it than you think. It pertains to what we do. So you can look at a piece of pipe and there's something that's tangible there. It relates to you better than just looking at a book."

Ryan Wierson, a 5th year apprentice chose this type of education over college in part because of cost. He says he and his wife are still paying off her college debt and he didn't want the expense of a second one.

But college is still an option. Many of the credits earned in this apprenticeship are accepted by the Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny and can be applied toward a two-year Associates degree.

John Oatts, Training Director, Plumbers and Steamfitters local 33: "We're looking at, at both ends. Uh what we can do for our students here to get them Associate degrees on the back end, but also on the front end. Uh, we're in the process of having a pilot program developed with Saydel High School. They have a construction program that they're establishing this year and it's going to give them direct entry into our "helper" program, which is our pre-apprentice."

To qualify the high school students for the pre-apprenticeship, Oatts talks with both the instructor and curriculum director about the need to instill students with a good work ethic and to add more math and science as it applies to the type of work studied in the high school Industrial Arts class.

Lora Wunsch, Director of Curriculum and Student Services, Saydel High School: "This is our first pathway down the apprenticeship and we're excited about it.

We probably don't have the strongest component for math for these kids tied directly to their classes that they get through our carpentry and plumbing classes. So we're looking closely to infuse the needed math skills, but also the same things with personal skills, communication skills, leadership skills, and just the 21st century career skills that we know they would need."

With such skills in hand, many think a fulfilling career can be had in the trades like plumbing and pipefitting.

John Oatts: "We are a great alternative to somebody who really doesn't want to go to 4 year institution for a college degree on a job that may or may not be there when they're done. You know, nothing is for sure but uh having a marketable skill that know we can't outsource, these jobs have to be done here. It doesn't guarantee your employment but it goes a long way in ensuring that you can, you can uh have a very good uh employment history."


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