By Tim Daly
I was twenty years old in 1981 when I took both a math test and an algebra test, given by Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to prospective apprenticeship candidates. The application asked me to write down three trades that I would be most interested in, and I wrote Outside Machinist, Air Conditioning Mechanic and Electrician. I scored high on the test and they notified me in late September that they wanted to hire me as a Pipefitter Apprentice. I was a little mystified at the position, but gladly accepted the offer. When my father arrived home from his job as a machinist at the shipyard, I told him the news and then proceeded to ask, “How could it possibly take four years to learn how to fit pipes together?” He laughed and started to explain how involved the trade really was. A couple of weeks later he was a proud papa when I climbed on the bus and sat next to him on my first day. And so it began.
Pipefitters are not Plumbers
Any conversation about Pipefitting must begin here. When you’re speaking of trades and labor unions, be they metal trades or building trades, the area in question’s pipefitters and plumbers will be lumped into the same UA local, but the fact that they both deal with piping systems is where the comparison begins and ends.
Plumbers work mostly on domestic (that is household) pipes and systems, like potable drinking water and sewage systems. Pipefitters, on the other hand, work on systems in industrial settings like factories, hospitals, and ships, as well as manufacturing and power plants. When it’s described like this the plumbers will start to feel like they’re being insulted, and tell you about having licenses and following plumbing codes. Pipefitting is whole other story.
If you went to the pier at a naval base, or pulled up next to a power plant and took a gander, you would see ships at the pier and a large building with smoke stacks at a power plant. But if you could look inside either entity, you would see a huge labyrinth consisting of miles of cables and pipes laid out in every direction. You would see pipes of every size, ranging from 1/8” tubing up to 36” pipes or larger. These pipes carry a myriad of fluids and gases, with a seemingly endless variety of pressures and flow rates. Now it’s true that engineers designed this menagerie of science and technology, but it was pipefitters who cut the pipe, bent the pipe, fit the pipe, welded the pipe, hung the pipe, and tested the pipe to ensure that it could handle the heat (sometimes upwards of 800°F) and pressure (often upwards of 6000 psi) required for many of these systems, then also fit them within the constraints of the building or ship.
My apprenticeship was fairly typical and lasted four years. We had over five thousand hours of On the Job Training (OJT), six hundred hours of college class work including math, algebra, physics, metallurgy, blueprint reading/drawing, and others; as well as another seven or eight hundred hours of trade theory.
Other ways to make to a journeyman level are starting out as a laborer, and getting the OJT and trade theory along the way, while working your way up the ladder. Or in some instances, plumbers will actually cross train, in an effort to improve their horizons by having more than one trade under their belts. These methods take varying amounts of time to make it to journeyman status, and often times it takes these individuals even longer to move into planning or supervisory positions within the trade. This is generally because the companies that invested in the training of apprentices like to reap the rewards of the seeds they’ve sown.
Specialists Within The Trade
We’ve already separated the pipefitters from the plumbers, and the apprentices from the journeymen, so now we’ll break the pipefitting trade into specialists.
Often who you will find working on a system is a team of pipefitters, including a welder, a grinder (not a Connecticut sandwich), and a laborer or apprentice. The welder does the welding, while the grinder is responsible for making the actual fit-up for the welder. The apprentice carries the tools, and does much of the grunt work, and they’ll all work together setting up the hangers and supports as well as putting the piping into place. I will tell you this with all seriousness and sincerity: a master at the art of high temperature and high pressure pipe welding, or a master at the art of the fit-up for a butt-weld joint of such a system are among the smartest, most patient, and most creative people you will ever meet. If you are in business and manage to hire such an individual, take care of him and pay him well. His work will surely pay dividends.
Beyond those specialties, you also have sprinkler fitters who work on the installation and maintenance of fire suppression or fire sprinkler systems in buildings, boiler mechanics who set-up, install and repair large industrial boilers, and steam fitters who work on—you guess it—steam systems. Since my apprenticeship at Portsmouth Navy Yard was geared towards me being a pipefitter on submarine overhauls and repairs, I graduated as a marine pipefitter.
A Happy Pipefitter
After over thirty-two years working as a pipefitter—both on submarines and in the trenches working water mains, sewer mains, and steam and condensate systems—as well as spending time working as a boiler plant and power plant operator, and also as a general maintenance work leader, I am glad that my three trade choices were ignored and I was chosen to be a pipefitter. Machinists, electricians, and A.C. mechanics are great guys working in wonderful trades, but I’ll take pipefitting every day of the week and twice on Sunday.