'Top Gun' for trades: Lima union hosts pipefitting contest

April 23, 2013

LIMA — The pipefitter apprentices are given specifications and make a pipe that goes from point A to point B. What those points look like are hidden behind a curtain.

The apprentices create the pipe section and hand it to judges who see if it can be attached at A and B. The task replicates something the apprentices would be required to do at a large complex: a job spec sent to a shop, without the capacity to actually see what you’re working on. It’s the sort of work that occurs at the Husky Lima Refinery, said Jim DeMoss, United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry Local 776 training coordinator.

At the end of this week of contests, top apprentices in pipefitting, plumbing, welding, sprinkler fitting and HVAC service will earn $400, bragging rights and the knowledge they’re more than ready for what the real world will throw at them.

Think “Top Gun” for the trades.

Local 776 is hosting the UA’s state apprenticeship contest this week. Winners will compete in the District 2 regional contest in Kentucky in June, and those winners will compete in the national contest in Ann Arbor, Mich. Nearly 40 fifth-year apprentices — plus judges and other union officials — are in Lima, boosting the local economy and boosting awareness of the career possibilities with the trades.

Depending on which trade they’re working, the apprentices have certain tasks and jobs to perform: different types of welds, elevation surveys, soldering or brazing pipes, pipe bending and rigging pipe. That last one means using a crane to attach a pipe section to the rest of a structure. It’s also a job a pipefitter would do at a place such as a chemical plant or refinery, DeMoss said. The pipe needs to first be balanced, because it doesn’t weigh the same at either end, and it also must be transferred through communication between workers on the ground and a worker in the crane using industry-standard hand signals.

Other apprentices were given equipment such as a walk-in cooler, furnace or air conditioning unit with a problem and told to solve the problem and fix the machine. Plumbing apprentices built underground piping for bathrooms from a drawing. Still others completed their written portion of the contest in a classroom through a program administered online.

Normally, Local 776’s Bowman Road facility is used for training 40 trades apprenticeships. The slots come open once a year for the five-year program. Locally, the union spends about $500,000 a year on training. Journeymen and apprentices are called to work in Lima, Dayton, Toledo and as far away as Chicago on construction. The work provides a good living, DeMoss said.

“It’s not often you think about what these people do to keep us safe, whether it’s public health with pipes for water and waste water systems, or the right job at a place like a refinery,” DeMoss said.

The event concludes with an awards banquet Thursday.

“They get the right to brag about it,” DeMoss said. “It’s a really big deal for these guys. We tell them, the guys who are already here, ‘To be at this point, you are the best in the state of Ohio.’”