June 14, 2012

Piping trades union emphasizes math, English for apprentice applicants

An official with the Toronto union local representing piping trades estimates up to 30 per cent of his members could retire in the next five to 10 years and it recently received 872 applications for its five-year apprenticeship program.

Vince Kacaba, director of training for Local 46 of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada, said his local held an application process in early May and received 872 applications.

“We will probably bring in 150 for interviews and will probably bring in 100 to 120 apprentices this year depending on demands,” he said.

“We try to be as rigorous as possible in assessing their skills, because if they don’t have a strong math, science and English capability, they’re not going to be successful in the trade.”

Kacaba made his comments in an interview with the Daily Commercial News during the recent National UA Apprenticeship Competition, held June 4 through 8 at Local 46 in Toronto.

Fifteen apprentices competed in the national competition. The five winners – a plumber, welder, sprinkler fitter, steamfitter and heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration service technician – were judged best in their respective trades and will go on to compete in a UA-wide event in Ann Arbor, Michigan this August.

Annapolis, Maryland-based UA has six districts in North America - one of which encompasses the Canadian locals - and represents more than 300,000 workers in the piping trades.

Local 46, situated on both sides of Warden Avenue north of Eglinton Avenue, in the Golden Mile area of Scarborough, is a training delivery agent approved by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. Kacaba said those applying to be apprentices are assessed in part on the basis of aptitude tests.

“One of the things we’re trying to promote about the trades in general, whether it be union or non-union, is that you have to be intelligent in order to get into it,” he said. “For too long, the skilled trades have been seen as a dumping ground for those who are good with their hands but they’re not academically inclined.”

The problem with that notion, Kacaba suggests, is that UA members need to be able to work in facilities such as nuclear power plants, oil refineries and on medical gas systems in hospitals.

“If we make mistakes, people die, so it’s critical that we get it right.”

Kacaba said over the next 10 to 15 years, there will be a major demand for skilled trades with oil sands projects in Alberta and upgrading infrastructure. At the same time, the population is aging.

“We figure over the next five to 10 years, probably 30 per cent of membership will be capable of retiring.”

Although the UA apprenticeship program is five years, it can take up to 10 years to get a fully competent tradesperson and more for supervisors, especially those in power plants, Kacaba said.

“There seems to be the idea that you can make more tradesmen by cutting back the skills they have, but that would be like saying you can make more doctors by cutting back the skills that they have,” Kacaba said.

“You need the full scope of the trade in order to understand the implications of what you’re doing. By changing one thing in a system or closing one valve, you could create a catastrophic disaster that will kill people.”

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