‘You’re always learning:’ Demand for steamfitters in Milwaukee grows as interest in trade apprenticeships increases
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) — Five years of training. A six-figure salary. Zero debt.
It all starts inside of a 25,000 square foot facility in Milwaukee, where hundreds of students study and train to become the backbone for the city’s infrastructure.
We’re talking about steamfitting, and if you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone.
“We are the union HVAC and refrigeration techs, the pipe welders, and fitters - installing comfort heating and cooling systems, grocery store refrigeration, gas line pumps, food & beverage piping, pharmaceutical and chemical systems, compressed air and gases, hydraulic, and fuel oil systems. We install and maintain the pipelines that deliver oil to refineries and gasoline from them as well as natural gas to your homes. The high-pressure steam systems we install at power plants help produce the electricity that powers home and businesses. We install and service the temperature controls and instrumentation systems that allow all of these systems to function safely and efficiently year after year,” said a statement by Steamfitters Local 601, a Milwaukee union.
Currently, the union has around 2,400 members who work in 14 counties throughout Southeastern Wisconsin.
“People know plumbers are the ones doing the sinks, the toilets, roof drains, things like that, water. Sprinkler fitters are the ones doing fire protection in a building whether that’s a house or a hospital and so everyone knows what that is,” said Joel Zielke, a business manager at Steamfitters Local 601. “We’re the people that do kind of all the rest of that.”
Zielke, who has worked for two decades as a union officer and for 38 years as a steamfitter, said one of the biggest misconceptions comes from stigma that begins during early education.
“I think people have a perception that construction trades, building trades type work is just dirty, back-breaking, not much thought, don’t have to know a lot, just have a strong back type of thing,” Zielke said. “There’s people that are better off working with their hands and have that skill and knowledge and just that appetite for fixing things and installing things.”
If you want to join the trade, the first thing you need is a general interest.
“An individual can literally come into an apprenticeship not knowing what a Steamfitter really is and we’ll start all at the basics,” said Chris Valerine, a training director at Steamfitters Local 601. “If they don’t want to work with their hands, they’re not interested in welding or troubleshooting or even servicing equipment, this might not be your trade.”
Valerine, who has been a union member since 2003, said once students pass basic testing, they can find local contractors who are willing to sponsor them.
“When the individual finds that first contractor, they start what’s called a pre-apprenticeship,” Valerine said. “That pre-apprentice is a time frame, a probationary period in which the individual can see if this is really a trade that they’re interested in, as well as a contractor saying, ‘hey, I’m going to invest a lot of time and effort in this individual.’”
If that pre-apprenticeship is completed, students will then begin going to both day school and night school.
“They have five semesters of day school which is either here on campus or else in Madison as well as at MATC South campus,” Valerine said.
One day a week is spent at school while the other four are spent on the job site.
“Everyone starts at the first spot. We work the individuals up to be able to turn out as a good journeyman,” Valerine said.
While the job requires long hours and physical labor, officials said it’s one of the only trades where you can “earn while you learn.”
“You start out as a first-year apprentice, you’re making $22.50 an hour with the Steamfitters. You get done and it’s $50 dollars an hour plus all the benefits, so that’s $100,000 dollars for a person once you’ve gone through the schooling and all the training,” said Zielke. “My wife always says, ‘I wish my mom had known about being a Steamfitter when she was raising us as kids.’”
Plus, you finish the program with zero debt. That was one of the main drawing points for 47-year-old Kevin Tatum, a fourth-year apprentice.
“I was in a transition period going from job to job and I was doing research about basically good paying jobs,” Tatum said. “Steamfitters came up, which I’d never ever heard anything about Steamfitters.”
Now four years later, Tatum said he wishes he “would’ve made that transition earlier.”
“It takes care of your family and it’s a great career. It’s been tremendous ever since and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it,” Tatum said. “It’s not an easy path, it’s a commitment so you have to be able to commit to it. I’ve learned so much and there is so much more to go.”
Prioritizing family is also a reason that resonated with Rachel Nelson, a fifth-year apprentice who headed into the military after finishing high school.
“I actually got pregnant while I was in the Marine Corps, so I am also a single mother,” Nelson said. “I had to get really serious about an actual civilian-side career.”
That’s when her journey as a steamfitter began.
“I had never heard of the Steamfitters Union. I chose to make my own path,” Nelson said. “There’s been birthdays of my child’s that I’ve had to miss. There’s been times where I’ve had to miss her gymnastics practices. It’s really important for her to have me there watching her and that’s been a big thing, just losing time with family has been the worst of it. But at the same time, coming out of this with all of these skills and the way that I’ll be able to provide for my family because of this, it’s all worth it.”
Nelson said her favorite part is the fact that she’s “always learning.”
“It’s not as scary as you think it is, it’s not as overwhelming as you think it is,” Nelson said. “My very first day on the job I was so lost in the sauce, like had no idea what was up or down. It’s like a complete shift from where I was five years ago. It’s amazing.”
Zielke noted that one of the best things about the industry is being able to teach future generations lifelong skills.
“We do this from somebody’s house all the way up to strip malls, hospitals, schools, power plants things like that, oil refineries, that’s the piping work of a steamfitter,” Zielke said. “The population is growing and so everybody needs some place to live. Everybody needs some place to come in and work and so the Milwaukee area is growing and that demand just kind of fuels us.”
He added that the diversity of the steamfitters’ work force is also increasing.
“We think that the Steamfitters Union should reflect what the city of Milwaukee looks like,” Zielke said. “Once you learn the trade, they can’t take it away from you. You’re gonna have it for the rest of your life.”