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High school welding competition yields new apprentices

“People here are trying to be inclusive and they care about the learning experience, not just the score.”

Becca Robertson, St. Clair County TEC Center Instructor

L-169 BM-ST Bob Hutsell addresses those competing at L-169’s annual High School Welding Competition

Since 2003, the High School Welding Competition at Local 169 (Detroit) has introduced hundreds of local high school seniors to the Boilermakers and to unions in general. Over 100 of those students indentured into L-169 with many still members today. And after a three-year pandemic hiatus, the competition was back in operation on May 19.

This competition is good for another reason: It fosters relationships between the local and area welding educators. And instructors like coming to the local because it helps them get out of the echo-chamber of the classroom.

“One of the big things we like about this competition is that it allows someone from outside our organization to evaluate our students,” said James Swenson, welding instructor at Kent Career Technical Center. “We always get great feedback from this competition.”

Swenson said that throughout the year, he has people come into the school and speak with students, and the Boilermakers are in the line-up. That provides an excellent opportunity for the local to present a solid career path to young men and women.

And for all the benefits the competition offers, it’s not too time consuming to plan and execute.

L-169’s Jamie Ratliff contacts the vendors and contractors who judge the competition and donate door prizes for the students such as welding hoods, welding jackets, tools and more.

“The judges like to come,” Card said. “All but one are members of our local. The owners like to judge. We work in their facilities. And they get to see where our members learn the skills to take out to the jobsite.” 

As far as the students, they’re excited to compete, especially those with an eye to indenture after they graduate. At the competition, students sit for a written exam and for one hands-on exercise—a plate vertical open butt with a root pass done with 6010 and a flush and cap with 7018.

“We’ve never had an issue with any of the students doing anything wrong,” Card said. “And I have 44 potential recruits for the Boilermakers.”

The competition originally began under the direction of then second-year apprentice Mark Wertz, who is now the Boilermaker National Apprenticeship Program coordinator.

“I fell on the Boilermakers by luck,” Wertz said, noting he was 25 when he indentured.

After working as an apprentice, he remembered his own high school competition in SkillsUSA and wondered if some type of competition for high school students might work on the local level. So he and Kathy McComb, who is now BNAP’s technical assistant, pulled together the first high school competition.

“I worked on the hands-on portion of the competition and she worked on the technical aspects,” Wertz said.

The local isn’t the only beneficiary of this competition. St. Clair County TEC Center Instructor Becca Robertson said there’s value for her students who compete at the local.

“This one, compared to others we’ve done, is the environment,” she said. “The people here place the same importance on the things I value in my program. I like that my students experience this in a union shop.”

She said that the students are learning and gaining experience from it. The Boilermakers are helpful with the students because they want them to learn.

“People here are trying to be inclusive and they care about the learning experience, not just the score,” Robertson said.

At the end of the day, every student goes home with a pair of welding gloves, a t-shirt and a door prize.

“With the support of our owners, vendors and signatory contractors, Boilermakers Local 169 is utilizing our High School Welding Competition to recruit a talented workforce that will carry our trade into the future,” said L-169 BM-ST Bob Hutsell.

The yearly High School Welding Competition wouldn’t be possible without the generous time and donations from owners, contractors, vendors and members.
  • Bill Bass, Detroit Edison
  • Chris Lanzon, OMI
  • Jacob Klann, Cortev
  • Frank Wimmer, Monarch
  • Mark Ivy, Enerfab
  • WJ Oiler, Consumers Energy
  • Lynn Hustsell, Office Manager
  • BA Jamie Ratliff
  • Lew Harris, lead apprentice instructor
  • Mike Steffus, Apprentice Instructor
Those donating include:
  • Detroit Edison
  • Allstate Welding
  • Midland Tool
  • Baker’s Gas
  • Atlantic Plant Maintenance
  • Babcock & Wilcox
  • Barton Malow
  • Detroit Boiler
  • Enerfab
  • Glasrock OMI
  • Mechanical System Services
  • Mid-American Group
  • Monarch Welding
  • Northern Boiler
  • Purvis & Foster
  • Songer Steel Services