The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 24, 2020 1:00 am

Hefty paychecks without heavy loans

Apprentices get paid to train; union people say fat wages follow

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Students who want to avoid lecture halls, term papers and, maybe most importantly, significant debt have the option of pursuing a career in the skilled trades.  

Chris Brown, training director for Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 166, said he and fellow union members joke that apprenticeships are northeast Indiana's best-kept secret.

Applicants accepted to one of about 20 local construction industry apprenticeship programs earn a paycheck while they learn. Training includes classroom and hands-on instruction, Brown said.

Over the five years it takes to complete the plumbers and steamfitters training program, apprentices earn $370,000 without accruing school debt, Brown said.

Chris Roberts, an instructor at Fort Wayne Community Schools' Career Center at Anthis, said a variety of students do well in trades programs.

“My most ornery students are sometimes my best,” he said, adding that they tend to do well in high-energy jobs including pouring concrete. “When you put these kids in the right environment, you can get unbelievable success.”

Jacob Berry was one of those kids. The 2019 graduate of Blackhawk Christian High School enrolled in Anthis classes his junior and senior years and ended up specializing in carpentry.

“I was kind of struggling in school,” he said, adding that a teacher suggested he consider the skilled trades.

“I showed up on Day One knowing, basically, nothing. I ended up graduating at the top of my class,” Berry said. “It's a whole different world, and it's scary. But sometimes you just have to jump in.”

Students at risk of dropping out of high school were traditionally steered toward the trades, Roberts said. But solid students who follow the rules and don't get into trouble can find their calling in the skilled trades.

Roberts encourages every high school student to tour the trades training building at Anthis.

Berry's parents had hoped he would attend college.

“When they saw what (Anthis) did for me and how it really turned my life around, they were really supportive,” he said.

Local 166 conducts its training in a three-story house that has multiple sink, toilet and water heater hookups that need to be completed. The house is built over a sand pit.

“That way they can also dig and practice their underground piping,” Brown said.

The connections are removed at the end of each year so the next apprentice class starts from scratch.

As the training director, Brown attends about 50 career fairs and gives about 40 classroom presentations about the apprenticeship program in a typical year.

“If I can get them into the training center and show them how it works ... if they're even a little bit inclined to work with their hands ... it makes a big difference,” Brown said, adding that it's as important to impress the parents as it is the high school students.

Apprentices aren't required to enter the program directly from high school. Brown, 37, was among those who waited. 

He started as a helper and driver at 19, went on to become a metal tradesman and then applied to the apprenticeship program at 24. He completed the five-year program at 29. Brown is a pipe fitter, a position also referred to as a steamfitter.

The apprenticeship program allows students to earn more than 100 credentials that validate their skills in various areas. Employers look for those credentials when making hiring decisions, Brown said.

No one is admitted to the plumbers apprenticeship program without a position lined up. The five-year program now has 170 participants but could handle about 220, Brown said. A residential plumbing program launched about four years ago has about 20 participants, he said.

Pay for plumbers and pipe fitters starts at $14 an hour for first-year apprentices and increases each year to $34.86 an hour for journeymen and $37.65 an hour for foremen, Brown said. At that rate, a journeyman working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks would earn almost $70,000 a year.

During the past five years, when demand has been strong, about 90% of plumbers and pipe fitters were working overtime in the summers, Brown said.

Plumbers and pipe fitters union members are paid time-and-a-half all day Saturday and for any time worked beyond eight hours on weekdays, Brown said. Any hours worked on Sundays are paid at double the regular hourly rate.

According to, “94% of apprentices who complete an apprenticeship retain employment, with an average annual salary of $70,000.”

Roberts, who teaches at the FWCS Career Center, said his students start out earning his teacher's pay after about three years in an apprenticeship program. Roberts has even asked himself whether he should continue in his job. Bottom line, he said, his passion is in working with students.

Berry pursued his passion for carpentry by enrolling in an apprenticeship program and accepting a position with Weigand Construction. He started the job a day after graduating high school.

But no one promises the work will be easy. Berry's union-negotiated medical benefits include 33 chiropractor treatments each year with no out-of-pocket payment.

The 19-year-old rents a house with his 21-year-old brother, Brad, who works for Flagstar Bank. Berry's “comfortable life” includes union contract-dictated wages and fully paid medical, dental, vision and hearing insurance. His retirement benefits include a pension and an annuity.

“It's a big company,” he said of Weigand, “but they still treat everyone like family. It's been a great experience.” 

At a glance

The highest paying jobs that don't require a college degree, along with median salary, are:

1. Police patrol officer, $61,380

2. Executive assistant*, $59,340

3. Sales representative, $58,510

4. Electrician, $55,190

5. Wind turbine technician, $54,370

6. Structural iron and steelworker, $53,970

7. Plumber, $53,910

8. Hearing aid specialist, $52,770

9. Sound engineering technician, $52,390

10. Brick mason and block mason, $50,950

11. Insurance sales agent, $50,600

12. Firefighter, $49,620

13. Real estate agent, $48,690

14. Sheet metal worker, $48,460

15. Equipment operator, $47,810

16. Choreographer*, $47,800

17. Surgical technologist, $47,300

18. Carpenter, $46,590

19. Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurse, $46,240

20. Glazier, $43,550

21. Cement mason and concrete finisher, $43,000

22. Solar photovoltaic installer, $42,680

23. Bus driver, $42,080

24. Insulation contractor, $41,910

25. Massage therapist, $41,420

* The number of jobs in this category is projected to decline in the next few years

Source: U.S. News & World Report

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