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Apprentice Program Trains Pipefitters and Plumbers

Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic
Matthew McGinnis in welding class

There’s a place in Morgantown where dreams of safe, lucrative occupation are envisioned and pipefitters and plumbers are born. It’s a 5-year apprentice program run by the United Association of plumbers and pipefitters, Local 152. When apprentices leave they walk away as certified welders, and blueprint-reading, crane-signaling, card-wielding union members.

Journeyman and teacher Jason Fidley:

“A lot of the people that come here, they gravitated to the Vo-Tech areas in high school. That’s becoming more shunned, socially, now,” says Jason Fidley who came up through the apprentice program and graduated to Journeyman status five or six years ago. The journeyman title comes with the completion of a certain amount of training and hours completed on the job. Today he’s working in the northern gas fields as a pipefitter and he also teaches classes at the apprentice school. 

“We were always pushed to go to college. Some people just don’t want to do that,” Fidley says. “And I’ve made more than I would make with a college degree where I’m at now.”

Fidley says he enjoys the sense of achievement he gets from accomplishing tasks like hoisting 5000 pound pipes into place. But he most enjoys working with apprentices at the school where he gets to see them have what he calls “light bulb moments.”

Journeyman and assistant coordinator Chad Oleksa:

“It’s a five year program,” says the union apprentice program’s assistant coordinator, Chad Oleksa. “It generally runs during the regular school year, two nights a week. At the same time the apprentices will be working out in the field during the day. So it can be a bit of a grind, but it’s worth it.”

Oleksa is also a journeyman and teaches first year apprentices all the need-to-know basics of plumbing and pipefitting. He says once they become journeymen they can work anywhere in the United States, Canada, and now Australia is a member of the United Association of plumbers and pipefitters union as well.

The apprentice program is available to anyone who is willing to take an aptitude test and be interviewed. There’s a special deal that streamlines the application process for veterans. Like Matthew McGinnis.

Apprentice Matthew McGinnis:

McGinnis was born and raised in Fairmont, he signed up as a soldier and after serving his country for six years he returned to WV.

“I’ve always enjoyed labor and building things with my hands and seeing a physical product at the end of the day,” McGinnis says, “so any type of building trade was something I was interested in and it really just worked out well for me time-wise from when I came back home to when the apprenticeship was starting. I came and did an interview and here I am.”

McGinnis says he is enjoying the program and the paid work that comes with it. He immediately began working in areas where he gets to put the knowledge he learns in classes to practical use. He’s is in his second year which is entirely dedicated to learning how to weld—something he says he’s always been interested in.

“You have to learn things and collect skills so that you can be put to use for that, so that is my main goal and my main focus right now, to learn everything that I can, and not just learn it but become proficient in it, so that I’ll be used for those abilities, and I’ll be an asset.”

McGinnis says he enjoys the camaraderie of working in the apprentice program within the union and all the challenges and learning opportunities he’s presented with in the classroom and out.

“They tell you math and science are going to be important when you grow up and it really is. There’s a lot of that people don’t realize that’s flowing in the building around them.”


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