A Tale of Three Plumbers: JVS Plumbing & Pipefitting Graduates Use Apprenticeship Training to Advance Careers
Jason Quisenberry, Zach Leighty, Zach Elias, Plumbing & Pipefitting, Class of: 2007
For many people, earning a college diploma is an important part of living the American Dream.
But that dream can become a nightmare for many individuals who struggle to find meaningful employment and make a decent living while saddled with burdensome student loans.
The average amount individuals reported owing for their education was $25,750, according to a 2013 report from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Many had difficulty making payments on their student loans and eighteen percent of those who owe money were behind on payments for their own education debt or had loans in collections, the report said.
But there are alternatives, such as apprenticeship programs, which provide students with paid, on-the-job training and lead to successful careers in many fields including the Building Trades and Construction industry.
"I love the outdoors. I love working with my hands, but I was restless sitting in a high school classroom," said Jason Quisenberry, 25, a journeyman pipefitter for Suburban Process Piping in Vermilion.
Quisenberry, who spent five years as an apprentice for Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 42 in Norwalk, considers his journeyman status the equivalent of a Bachelor's degree.
"It was pretty rigorous, working full-time and attending classes at the union hall training center twice a week for five years," he said. "But to me, earning my journeyman's papers was just as satisfying as earning a college degree - without the huge costs."
Quisenberry also credits his success to the Lorain County JVS. The 2007 graduate discovered his niche in the Plumbing and Pipefitting Program, where he learned about blueprints, soldering, precise measurements and fitting distances.
The JVS Summer Internship and early job placement programs also provided Quisenberry a paycheck and training while working at A&R Plumbing in Medina. Shortly after graduating, the Avon resident went to work at Lucas Plumbing & Heating in Lorain, where he entered a five-year apprenticeship training program and became a journeyman pipefitter in 2012.
"What's not to like about being paid to learn on the job?" he asked. "Most important, the apprenticeship gave me something even college graduates would envy - job security."
Quisenberry will be busy through April updating all the plumbing at Cedar Point's Hotel Breakers. He has also worked on the amusement park's roller coasters and water rides. Other steady clients include both Republic and U.S. Steel plants in Lorain and Oberlin's new methane power plant.
By 2025, a four-year college degree could cost almost $160,000 if tuition costs increase by seven percent each year until then, according to CollegeCalc.org.
But apprentices can also earn college credits through courses taken at their local union halls.
"Apprentices earn between 50-to-60 college credits by the time they receive journeyman status," said Jason Shank, Training Director for the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (JATC) for Journeyman Plumbers Union Local 55 Cleveland and Cleveland Plumbing Contractor's Association. "It gives them the opportunity to pursue college degrees, leading to careers as project administrators, supervisors and plumbing and building inspectors, depending on how driven they are."
For the time being, Zach Leighty said that he is focused on becoming a journeyman plumber.
"College isn't in my plans right now," said Leighty, 19, a second-year plumbing apprentice with Smith & Oby in Walton Hills.
"But it's nice to know those credits will transfer to Cuyahoga Community College if I decide to pursue a degree," said Leighty, who attends weekly, part-time, night classes at Local 55. "It will save me lots of money."
Especially if Leighty and his twin brother, Josh, decide to become business partners, for instance.
Both twins graduated from the JVS in 2013; Zach in Plumbing and Pipefitting; Josh in Precision Machine Technology.
"Apprenticeships are the greatest idea ever," said Zach Leighty, whose plumbing baptism began with major plumbing renovations at John Carroll and Kent State universities dormitories. He also has installed new plumbing at PNC Tower in Cleveland.
"I entered my apprenticeship confident, not cocky," Leighty said. "But you have to take it seriously and keep an open mind. What you get out of it depends on the effort you put into it."
Apprentice enrollments are increasing across the country, and in Ohio, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
In fiscal year 2013, more than 164,000 people enrolled in registered apprenticeship programs, compared to about 128,000 individuals in 2011; overall, more than 375,000 are serving apprenticeships; and more than 52,000 graduated from apprenticeship programs, according to Labor Department statistics.
RAPIDS (Registered Apprenticeship Partners Information Data Systems) reports 13,619 registered apprentices presently in Ohio, with an average starting wage of $14.63 and an average completion wage of $22.90. This figure reflects an increase of 1,718 apprentices when compared to the apprentices in Ohio in 2012.
"I have zero loan debt," said Zach Elias, 18, a first-year apprentice who also works out of Local 42 in Norwalk.
Elias graduated from the JVS Plumbing & Pipefitting Program in May of 2014. Like Leighty, Elias is also earning college credits through his classes at his JATC and will be close to earning an Associates degree in Construction by the time he becomes a journeyman.
"One of my biggest concerns was not having enough work to keep me busy, but I was completely wrong about that," said Elias, who is applying his skills with Bruner Corp. of Columbus, building a six-story addition at MedCentral Mansfield Hospital - a two-year project.
"As an apprentice, I work where I'm assigned, so I'm learning a lot about everything involved with plumbing and pipefitting," he said. "I'm working with a handful of journeymen. I can't say enough about their professionalism. They really want me to succeed."
Elias also aspires to become certified in tig and stick welding by the end of his apprenticeship. So the Columbia Station resident is devoting extra class time practicing his welds at the union hall and at home.
"The demand for welders is huge," he said. "Local 42 can't hire experienced welders fast enough. And the union is going to pay for my training."
To become journeymen, apprentices must be certified in three of the five areas that Local 42 offers - welding, sprinkler fitting, back flow testing, medical gas and plumbing, Elias said. "I expect to be certified in all of them," he said.
The U.S. Department of Labor and the Ohio State Apprenticeship Council, which set guidelines for each union's JATC, govern Ohio apprenticeship programs.
"We're (JATC) a self-funded industry, supported by collective bargaining agreements between contractors and unions," said Shank.
"It costs, on average, about $6,500 to train one apprentice each year, which includes books and tools," Shank said. "Avoiding personal debt is a big selling point for us. As the economy improves and the baby boomers retire, the outlook is good for apprenticeships and careers in the building and trade industries."
Currently, Plumbers Local 55 is training 22 new first year apprentices, where the average age of an apprentice is 28, and 30 percent of apprentices already have some college education, Shank said.
But Shank would also like to see apprenticeships made available to more high school students.
"It's rare to recruit kids right out of high school, I wish we were more involved," said Shank, who also helps area Boy Scouts on weekends at the JATC Training Center earn merit badges for plumbing. "Their parents were surprised. They didn't know anything about us. It seems (high school) administrators are steering students toward college, unaware that these apprenticeship programs exist."
Apprenticeships are also popular across Europe.
Apprenticeships provide training for 50 to 70 percent of young people in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, according to a report by Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute. Apprenticeships are also expanding in Ireland, Australia and the United Kingdom, in occupations such as nursing, information technology, finance and advanced manufacturing, according to the report.