June 26, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
Queens, New York – Earlier this month, hundreds of hopefuls camped outside the UA Local #1 Training Center in Long Island City for a chance at being accepted into the union’s 5-year plumbers apprenticeship program. Someday soon, those who successfully make it through the intensive program will be helping to carry this venerable city far into the future – while also safeguarding countless lives in the process.
In a classroom inside the 40,000 square-foot facility located at 37-11 47th Avenue, apprentices already accepted into the program are busy discussing the inverse relationship between decreasing gas pressure and increasing volume as described in Boyle’s Law.
Another area located downstairs houses a $40,000 hi-tech welding simulator which 21st-century plumbers are using to perfect their eye-hand coordination and muscle memory without ever catching an errant spark.
Converted space near the center’s loading dock, meanwhile, has been cannily transformed into a real-world workshop dedicated to the installation of solar thermal collectors. And the CAD drafting room located back upstairs, maintains rows of $3,000 computers with advanced CPUs capable of generating 3-D imagery.
Somewhere in there, too, apprentices also become super-adept at fixing leaky faucets and clearing clogged drains.
“We don’t accept anybody that doesn’t have minimal math scores on their high school transcripts or equivalencies,” says Arthur Klock, director of Trade Education. “That differentiates us from the other trades’ apprenticeship programs.”
Despite the challenges, hundreds of apprentices and journeyman keep the Long Island City training center humming day and night. The five-year apprentice program provides newcomers to the trade with the option of specializing in computer-aided drafting or advanced welding, as well as obtaining an Associates Degree in Science from Empire State College.
“Within the title of plumber there are a hundred variations of what you could be doing,” Klock says.
According to John J. Murphy, Local #1 business manager, the emphasis on training has probably never been greater.
“When you look at the non-union sites that are out there, there’s zero training,” Murphy says. “They hire somebody, put them on a construction site and…let’s build the building. And it’s not only training, it’s also about maintaing safety standards.”
At one time, New York City’s three plumbers unions each maintained their own training centers. But the groups consolidated back in 1997, and the Long Island City Training Center opened its doors two years later.
Over the years, the union has come to enthusiastically embrace the concept of “green jobs,” and in many respects is now at the forefront of water conservation and recycling. A number of buildings around town, for instance, are actually reusing contaminated “black water” that has been professionally “polished” and made suitable for non-potable uses.
“Green is nothing new to us,” Klock says. “Water conservation has been a prime function of what we do for years. We’ve always considered ourselves stewards of the water supply.”
Indeed, at one time in the city’s history, Master Plumber licenses were issued by the Department of Health, rather than the Department of Buildings.
And if the city is to better withstand another Hurricane Sandy event somewhere down the road, it will at least be partially due to the policy suggestions and building changes Local #1 advocated in the aftermath of the storm – and the practices being taught at the Long Island City Training Center.
But residents don’t have to wait for another natural disaster to strike in order to fully appreciate the plumber’s vital role in protecting the public’s health.
Case in point: few realize that that the supply of gasses used in hospital operating rooms and post-op units across the city, actually depend upon a union plumber’s skill, dedication and knowledge of those very intricate and specialized delivery systems.
“Ever had surgery?” Klock asks. “Well, a plumber was in the operating room with you. Without a plumber, you would have had a real problem.”
Despite their ever-increasing importance, Murphy says that highly-trained plumbers are still taken for granted, however.
“And yet, poor plumbing is really putting society at risk,” the business manager says.
The union spends over $3 million dollars a year on training. The money comes from the members themselves, and ensures that plumbers remain well equipped to live out their long-standing credo as protectors of the nation’s health.
“You don’t do the kinds of things we do without the proper training,” Klock says. “And you don’t put people’s lives in jeopardy.”