L-169’s Opalewski wins top graduate apprentice title

It’s the closest thing you can find to a brotherhood like you have in the service.

Christopher Opalewski

L-169’s Christopher Opalewski hoists the first place trophy after being named the top graduate apprentice for 2013.

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National award is first for an H2H contestant

CHRISTOPHER OPALEWSKI, a member of Local 169 (Detroit), became the first military veteran indentured through the Helmets to Hardhats program to be named the top U.S. Boilermaker graduate apprentice, following a four-day competition at L-169’s training center in Allen Park, Mich., Sept. 22-25. The 26th annual competition was held under the auspices of the Boilermakers National Apprenticeship Program (BNAP), with L-169 serving as the host lodge.

Helmets to Hardhats, abbreviated H2H, is a national program designed to match military veterans with jobs in the construction industry.

Opalewski scored best overall in a field of eight select candidates from across the United States. The competition included a 10-hour-limit written exam and three days of practical exercises testing Boilermaker skills.

Tim Howe, a member of Local 85 (Toledo, Ohio) took the runner-up spot. He and Opalewski also won team honors representing the Great Lakes Area.

Other competitors in the national event were, from the Western States Area, Tyler Evans, Local 502 (Puyallup, Wash.) and Adam Lee, Local 242 (Spokane, Wash.); from the Southeast Area, William Campbell II, Local 433 (Tampa, Fla.) and Joshua Carter, Local 69 (Little Rock, Ark.); and from the Northeast Area, Cody Conner, Local 154 (Pittsburgh) and Mark Felschow, Local 7 (Buffalo, N.Y.).

The written exam covered the BNAP curriculum, the Boilermaker constitution, and other topics. Practical skills testing included welding, rigging, burning, gouging, tube rolling, waterwall repair, layout, boiler identification, tool identification, CPR, and ropes, knots, and reeving.

“Everyone is a winner”

WHILE THERE CAN be only one top finisher in the national event, the Brotherhood recognizes the rigorous preparation and the high-level of achievement all competitors attain as they advance through the local and area events to reach the final competition.

“Everyone is a winner,” said BNAP Coordinator Marty Spencer, adding that all competitors should be proud for doing their best “for themselves, their family, their local lodge, their area, our organization, and the industry in general.”

BNAP lead instructor John Standish said the competition has two primary goals: to showcase he “best of the best” graduate apprentices and to evaluate the effectiveness of training.

“We all learn through this experience,” he said. “It helps us understand what we’re doing well and what training areas may need to be adjusted.”

Spencer agreed. “We use the competition to benchmark the performance of our top apprentices, and by extension the work of local lodge training centers and our overall program.”

Opalewski’s victory highlights the value that veterans bring to the workforce.

Darrell Roberts, H2H

Helmets to Hardhats Executive Director Darrell Roberts said Opalewski’s win shows that H2H works. “Christopher Opalewski’s victory highlights the value that veterans bring to the workforce, and we couldn’t be more pleased with his accomplishment. We work hard to help veterans transition to civilian life, and seeing someone use the discipline and tenacity they learned in the military to not only get to the competition but win, makes us deeply proud.”

Winner finds brotherhood in Boilermakers

FOR CHRIS OPALEWSKI, landing a career with the Boilermakers happened more by chance than design. After two combat tours in Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division, he left the Army and began attending college while also working as an auto mechanic.

At a birthday party, he happened to speak with a Boilermaker from Local 169, who suggested he find out more about the Helmets to Hardhats program.

Opalewski enrolled in H2H and was soon indentured with L-169. While undergoing training, he also received on-the-job experience working at coal and nuclear power plants, steel and paper mills, and other industrial facilities.

“I love it, because it’s the closest thing you can find to a brotherhood like you have in the service,” he said. It’s been amazing.”

Opalewski credited his wife, Andrea, for helping him prepare for the competition. “My wife really helped me out. She asked me questions from notes I had taken on cards, and she took care of the baby.” The couple’s first child, Penelope, was born several weeks before the competition.

Opalewski said the best advice he received upon entering his apprenticeship came from his father. “He told me when I was accepted into the program, ‘Just keep your mouth shut and listen.’”

As to the competition, Opalewski admitted to having concerns. “Our local has a legacy of winning in area competitions, and we won the national last year. I didn’t want to let them down. I’m competing against the seven best guys in the nation. It made me very nervous. I respect them all for being here. All these guys were great.”

COVER HEADLINE: Top U.S. apprentices compete