Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 23: Celebrating 75 Years of Service

As it marks a major milestone, this Rockford union remains focused on growth, not just in the construction projects where it thrives but in the strong career pipeline it offers.

The union office and training center for the United Association of Plumbers & Pipefitters Local Union 23, at 4225 Boeing Drive in Rockford, is impressive. The headquarters for more than 800 plumber, pipefitter and HVACR journeymen in six Illinois counties, the building is an administrative center that also houses a vast, comprehensive training center where apprentices learn just what it takes to excel in this essential trade.

This year, everyone in the building has a reason to celebrate as Local 23 marks its 75th anniversary. Its legacy started even earlier, in 1899, when the United Association granted a charter to Local 57 plumbers, gasfitters and steamfitters. In 1948, Local 57 merged with Local 210 to form Local 23. On Jan. 1, 1970, Local Union 328, from Freeport, merged with Local 23 of Rockford. Since then, the organization has grown to encompass journeymen and apprentices in Winnebago, Stephenson, Boone, Ogle and Jo Daviess counties, as well as parts of Carroll County.

The general public’s misconceptions about what it takes to succeed in this industry have been around just as long.

“We all know what the stereotype for a plumber looks like, but that’s sadly mistaken,” says Timothy Huff, business manager for Local 23. “We’re very proud of what we do.”

The tradespeople Local 23 represents are some of the most skilled on any construction site. Plumbers focus primarily on greywater carrying and drainage systems, installing and repairing systems that carry potable water and wastewater in residential, commercial and industrial buildings. In addition to maintaining supply lines and systems, they also install and maintain fixtures like sinks, toilets, showers, tubs and tanks. Because plumbers ensure clean water is delivered and wastewater is removed, they must adhere to a myriad of codes, regulations and certifications.

“The plumber protects the health of the nation,” says Huff.

Pipefitters focus on process piping systems that transport non-water fluids. They handle the installation, maintenance and repair of complex piping systems that carry steam, industrial fluids and gases in a variety of facilities like manufacturing plants, power plants, refineries and hospitals.

Local 23 also represents journeymen in heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVACR). Any system that controls indoor climate and air quality falls in their purview, which means that HVACR tradespeople must be proficient in mechanical and electrical systems. All three vocations involve a working knowledge of schematics and blueprints, as well as experience in welding.

“All of our plumber and pipefitter apprentices need to get at least one weld certification,” says Huff.
For anyone interested in joining the trade, the road to apprenticeship begins at, the organization’s website, where a step-by-step guide is posted. Huff advises applicants not to be discouraged if they aren’t successful on their first try.

“We usually have a few hundred applicants,” he says. “It’s difficult for someone who is right off the street to get in. It took me three tries. I tell everyone who applies that, if this is something you truly want to do, don’t give up.”

This advice has become especially pertinent since President Joe Biden signed the Executive Order on Implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021. This nationwide initiative has significantly increased the demand for skilled workers in all areas of construction, including plumbing and pipefitting.

“We’ve just taken one of the largest classes, by far, since I entered the trade,” says Huff. “All the trades are taking large apprenticeship classes, which is good.”

Once an applicant is accepted, the real work begins. A five-year apprenticeship program at Local 23 requires 1,250 hours in the classroom and an additional 8,500 hours on the job. And that’s the minimum.

“Most of the time it’s around 1,400 classroom hours and about 10,000 on the job,” says Greg Harle, Local 23’s training coordinator. “That’s usually about the average.”

As training coordinator, Harle heads up the training center’s faculty, which also includes a plumbing instructor, an HVACR instructor and a weld administrator. Harle points out that any apprentice who thinks their new vocation will bear any resemblance to the Mario Brothers – those popular plumbers of pop culture – will be disabused of that notion on the first day.

“I’ve never collected a gold coin or jumped on a turtle in 25 years,” he laughs.

This training represents the most comprehensive in the construction industry, focusing on a multitude of disciplines, including technical know-how, problem solving and understanding safety protocols. It’s a rigorous combination of hands-on experience and practical skills development where trainees work alongside experienced professionals in real-world settings.

“If you take a walk through our training center, the walls are lined with trigonometry formulas,” says Huff. “We have the best training program of all the trades. If you asked any of the other trades who had the best training center, they’d tell you it’s us.”

That training is ongoing, as well. Once an apprentice graduates, they are expected to keep their certifications up to date. This is done by meeting minimum work hours and taking continuing education classes, refresher classes and additional tests. For this reason, the Local 23 training center remains open and available for members of all levels who wish to keep their certifications current or broaden their scope of expertise.

“A pipefitter can get their plumbing license, or a plumber can get more weld certifications,” says Huff, while pointing out that earning every certification would be nearly impossible.

“If someone did that, I’d sure like to meet them,” he laughs.

All of the certifications available represent just how much the plumbing and pipefitting industry, as well as the construction industry as a whole, has changed since Local 23 began. For Huff, keeping up with the rapid changes in technology is one of the union’s most important missions.

“We consider ourselves to be a leader in the construction industry,” he says. “If you’re not keeping up with the times, you’re going to be buried.”

Staying on top of the current trends means the trainers themselves need to go to training. Harle and his team regularly attend an annual industry-wide instructor training program, held this year at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“Every training center and trainer in the country will take over the entire campus,” says Huff. “They will be taking classes to stay up-to-date on new technologies and procedures. It never gets stale.”

Once the training center team returns, Local 23 will be gearing up for its two-day 75th Anniversary celebration, which runs Sept. 8 and 9. The fun kicks off in Rockford’s Davis Park on the evening of Sept. 8 with a casual social event featuring live music and fireworks. On Sept. 9, partygoers don their formal wear for dinner and dancing at Embassy Suites Rockford Riverfront Hotel.

“We started planning this two years ago,” says Huff. “We just want to keep it light, but I want it to be memorable.”

Just up the road from Local 23’s current state-of-the-art facility is its former headquarters, where it operated from 1980 to 1999. The difference between the squat, two-story red brick building and the sleek, updated facility illustrates just how much things have changed. Growth is natural and necessary for the trade and the people who take it up. Huff, whose career spans both locations, has witnessed just how profound that growth can be, both on a professional and a personal level.

“I came from humble beginnings, and I’m truly blessed,” says Huff. “I owe everything to my trade.”