December 16, 2011
By Bendix Anderson
To really understand how much skill it can take to be a union construction worker in New York City, pay a visit to the training center of Steamfitters Local 638 in Long Island City.
Apprentice steamfitters spend five years training to become journeymen. That includes 1,500 to 2,000 hours a year working in the field. They also come to the classroom one day every two weeks for 216 hours a year for five years. Much of that time is spent learning to cut and weld all the types of pipe they will have to work with on the job installing and maintaining heating and cooling systems.
Welding is a highly valuable skill. “I could give you a meal… or I could teach you to weld and you’ll be fed for the rest of your life,” said Tom Goodwin, training director for the Steamfitters. But apprentice steamfitters also get training in drafting, building science… and a refresher course in trigonometry.
Why do steamfitters need to brush up on their sine and cosine? Here’s a real world example: Say a pair of steamfitters are cutting and installing a new energy efficient boiler at an old school. The architect’s sketch is supposed to include all the information to do the job, and the steamfitters are trained to read the symbolic language of the plans.
But jobs often have surprises. In this case, the new boiler is smaller than the old one, leaving a space that will have to be filled with new pipe. With limited time to call the architect’s office, the steamfitters have to design piping to bridge the gap, compute exactly how long the sections of pipe should be, cut them and lift them into place. The straight length of pipe will have to travel a few feet forward, a few feet up and a few feet across – it’s what the steamfitters call a “rolling offset.” The steamfitters can figure out the correct distance by using the sine, cosine and tangent functions on a calculator, or without a calculator by using a series of equations and long division.