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Apprentices compete while Boilermakers recruit at SkillsUSA

Nathan McCatty and Jill Osentoski study the blueprint during the welding fabrication competition at SkillsUSA.

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Three apprentices from Local 169 (Detroit) competed in the SkillsUSA National Competition for post-secondary welding fabrication June 19-23 in Atlanta, placing eighth out of 24 teams.  

While the apprentices competed, apprentice coordinators and recruiters, including BNAP Coordinator Mark Wertz, NEAAC Administor Jason Dupuis and Great Lakes M.O.R.E. Work Investment Fund Recruiting/Organizing Rep Kevin Stewart, staffed a busy information booth, promoting the union to students and instructors.

SkillsUSA is a national educational nonprofit that focuses on developing the skills of students pursuing careers in trade, technical and skilled service occupations. Competitions on the state and national level provide a platform for students to showcase their talents, gain practical experience and engage in leadership development activities. The organization plays a vital role in bridging the gap between education and industry, equipping students with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in the workforce.

It's also an environment filled with young people who are deciding what to do when they leave high school or community college. And it’s crawling with instructors who want to help those students succeed after school. Wertz participated in SkillsUSA as a student and has seen the value in the Boilermakers having a presence at the competition—not just to recruit young men and women to the union but to educate instructors about what the union can do for students.

“I think the connection we can make with high school and community instructors can create a strong pipeline for a long time,” Wertz said.

It’s why Stewart helped to man the booth at SkillsUSA. Stewart was apprentice coordinator for L-363 (East Saint Louis, Illinois) before taking on a role as a recruiter. His goal is to get the word out that the Boilermakers union is a solid career choice for young people.

“If you can build a good relationship with the instructor, then you have the ability to reach a large talent pool of possible candidates. We’ve seen great success through instructor referrals,” Stewart said. “The instructor is the best selling point. The kids know them better. They trust them. If we have them sold, it makes things a lot easier.”

Apprentice competitors learn through SkillsUSA 

The contest is an excellent place for apprentices to compete—despite SkillsUSA’s dizzying number of rules, all which cost points if not followed. For example, minutes before the L-169 apprentices were to begin the competition, Mike Card, L-169 apprenticeship coordinator, president and business agent, had to run to the SkillsUSA shop to buy uniforms for the competitors or be docked points. And that was only one of the many rules the team had to follow.

“For these individuals—they’ve learned stuff that typically they’re not going to learn in the apprenticeship,” Card says.  

In SkillsUSA, students work with thin metal. There’s detailed blueprint work, different from what’s taught in the apprenticeship, among other dissimilarities.

“The competition really helps,” Card said. “Like in Common Arc, they have to perform under pressure. They’ve gained valuable experience being able to perform in a stressful environment.”

Apprentices Kadan Kontranowski, Nathan McCatty and Jill Osentoski did well for their first national competition, placing in the top third of teams competing. All three are first generation Boilermakers, and one found his way to the apprenticeship through L-169’s High School Welding Competition.

Kontranowski said being in the apprenticeship was a challenge. “You learn a lot because there’s a lot to learn. There’s always something to improve on.”

He indentured into L-169 following the local’s welding competition, after completing two years of welding in high school. He was also active in SkillsUSA in high school, so he was able to help the team with the intricate details of the contest.

To compete at national SkillsUSA, the team first had to win at the state competition. For the national contest, the team had to submit individual resumés, create a blueprint as a team, take a leadership test and a basic welding and fabrication knowledge test. The team also had six and a half hours to build a charcoal grill from the blueprint they created before coming to the competition.

In the hands-on portion of the contest, the tools available didn’t match the array apprentices have on the job or at the local’s training center, such as a sleever bar, a common Boilermaker tool used to pry beams to put them in place.

“Being limited on tools was a challenge,” Osentoski said.

“We were limited on fab supplies, too,” added McCatty.

Osentoski and McCatty indentured into the apprenticeship following post-secondary college welding programs. Osentoski said her instructor pointed her toward the Boilermakers.

 “I needed a good career I could support myself on,” she said. “I wanted to put my skills to use.”

When McCatty was deciding what to do after school, he indentured in the apprenticeship because “it sounded better than the pipefitters.” He was excited to be asked to compete in SkillsUSA.

“I was happy to be noticed. To know that my hard work in the apprenticeship is leading me to new opportunities,” he said. “They’re not going to ask just anyone to represent the trade and compete.”

All three apprentices graduate to journeyworker in August. They all agree, the apprenticeship has taught them what they need to know to succeed. And competing in SkillsUSA gave them more practice and an experience to remember.

“They took this really seriously,” Card said, noting that the national competition is more than that for Boilermakers. “We get the word out here that they don’t have to go to college. They can learn what they need in the apprenticeship.” He said the young people at the competition are the people you want in the union. “People who aren’t afraid to get dirty when they work. You have a lot more people here who know what this job is about.”