Rockford’s Plumbers, Pipefitters and HVACR union has found lasting success by investing in its members ability to work at the cutting edge of technology.
If your idea of a plumber is a guy with a beer belly and a plunger, think again. Mechanical trades – like plumbing, pipefitting, and HVAC and refrigeration – are the elite of all skilled trades. They keep industries, businesses – and even your home – running smoothly.
Think about the nuclear plant in Byron, Ill., and the Stellantis Assembly Plant (formerly known as Chrysler) in Belvidere.
“When you think of the Byron nuclear plant, you immediately think of electricity, but there is so much piping in the place. They draw water out of the river to cool the fuel rods, then pump the water to the cooling towers,” says Tim Huff, business manager, financial secretary and treasurer of Plumbers, Pipefitters & HVACR Local 23. “At the Chrysler plant, there’s cooling water, hydraulic fluids, paint systems, steam and condensate, and air that runs through miles of piping and vessels.”
Continual training is vital to keep pace with the technological needs of all industries.
“Our three mechanical trades have more schooling than all of the other trades do, which is why we spend the most money and time on training our people,” Huff says.
Plumbers, Pipefitters & HVACR Local 23 – which serves six counties in Northwest Illinois, extending from Boone County to the Mississippi River – has invested in an ever-growing state-of-the-art training facility on Boeing Drive in Rockford. The facility opened in 1999 and has expanded twice.
“We treat it like a living being,” says Greg Harle, Local 23 president and training director. “It’s constantly evolving. We spend about $2 million a year on training, and part of that helps keep the training center up-to-date with the technologies in our industry.”
Five-year apprenticeship programs require 1,250 classroom hours and 8,500 on-the-job hours, which is more rigorous than similar college courses, according to Harle, who has taught at the training center since 2003 and earned a degree in industrial education in 2008.
“There is no community college in the area that can put their vocational training up to ours,” he says. “They come to us for advice.”
Class sizes are smaller, too, but the biggest difference is union apprentices don’t pay tuition. The union pays them to learn.
Huff says apprentices currently earn $20 per hour, plus benefits. Journeymen earn more than $50 per hour, plus benefits. He also wants to quell the notion that union contractors are automatically more expensive than non-union workers.
“The initial bid might be more expensive, but our people are more qualified and have way more training than anyone in the non-union sector. Period. But also, our contractors don’t upsell customers,” Huff says, adding that some less-scrupulous contractors might present a lower initial bid to land the job, only to add costs they intentionally omitted in order to keep their bid lower.
Far more than pay rates have changed since the United Association granted the Local 57 plumbers, gasfitters, steamfitters and steamfitter helpers a charter on Jan. 1, 1899. Local 23 was born in 1948 when Local 57 merged with Local 210. On Jan. 1, 1970, Freeport’s Local 328 merged into Local 23.
While the basics of some jobs remain the same, much of this union’s work wasn’t even imagined a century ago.
“The technology is like what you’d see in science fiction movies years ago,” Huff says. “After five years here, our apprentices are walking out with a plethora of knowledge I never had access to and are way better journeymen than I’d be. The only thing I’d have on most of them is my work ethic – and I’d have to work twice as hard, because they’ve got the technology.”
Another advancement: This past November, Local 23 nominated Carrie Crosby as its first woman officer. She was elected in December and installed as the recording secretary in January.
“I got started in the industry after going through the HCCTP program at Rock Valley College – the Illinois Highway Construction Careers Training Program,” Crosby says. “That kind of gave me a crash course in different fields. I had an interest in welding, so I applied to the plumbers and pipefitters apprenticeship program.”
When Crosby began her pipefitting apprenticeship in 2014, she was the first female apprentice in nearly 20 years.
“Now, we have at least one woman join each year, and we’ve had a total of nine in the past seven years. It’s nothing to brag about yet, but we’re making efforts to change,” Harle says.
“Being a woman in a male-dominated field isn’t always easy,” Crosby says, “but it’s gratifying. And empowering. I’ve looked up to a lot of strong women, and I just hope I’m offering the same for younger generations.”
Huff echoes those sentiments.
“Society needs to make changes toward traditional gender roles,” he says. “Because, right now, if I were to go into a public school, the shop classes would be 99% male, and the home economics classes would be 99% female. The problems we face in recruiting females start in grammar school and go forward. When we get 260 applicants but only eight of them are women – even if there were 20 – changing those numbers is our biggest challenge.”
In addition to drawing more women into the mechanical trades, Local 23 also wants to lure young people and even not-so-young people who are ready for a career change.
When he was in high school, Huff says, kids who weren’t on the college path were looked down on. But college – and college debt – isn’t for everyone.
“We’re looking for the brightest students,” he says. “We’re looking for students who want to excel and be leaders. Middle schools and high schools are finally realizing that now.”
Harle’s message for area high schools is blunt.
“If your football team is a bigger investment than your vocational training centers, you’re not preparing young men and women for possible career opportunities,” he says.
Crosby suggests that anyone who thinks they might be interested in a career as a plumber, pipefitter or HVAC refrigeration professional should apply.
“All you have to do is show up and try,” she says. “There’s no end-point in the industry. If you just like being a worker, you can work and play with the tools. You can be a foreman. You can be a superintendent. You can move up in your company, or you can move up on the union side. It’s a great career.”
After a two-year lull due to COVID-19, Harle says Local 23 is back on track.
“We’re currently accepting applications until January, and we’re ready to staff our industry with an elite labor force,” he says.
With its 75th anniversary on the horizon, Harle says Local 23’s long-term goal is for the training program to become accredited just like those at community colleges.
“Our other goal is for interim, industry-recognized credentials to build upon as our apprentices progress through the program,” he adds.
No matter where technology may be headed, Huff knows Local 23 members are well-positioned, and trained, to handle it.
“We have to keep pace with the new technologies or we’re going to be left behind,” he says. “We want to be the leader, so we’ll definitely be learning whatever it takes to keep moving forward.” ❚