Plumbing apprentices, for the past 20 years, and HVAC apprentices, for the past 5 years, have been coming to the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors (PHCC) conference, CONNECT, to not only meet industry leaders and learn about the latest products but also to compete. From across the U.S., apprentices come to show off their skills as the next generation of the industry’s workforce.
The Plumbing and HVAC Apprentice Contests will take place at PHCC CONNECT 2017 in Milwaukee, where all attendees will have the opportunity to watch the contestants as they compete.
“The event is an incredible opportunity for PHCC to highlight what the next generation is capable of doing in our industry,” says Merry Beth Hall, assistant vice president, Workforce Development for PHCC Educational Foundation. “It’s a chance to let them shine and show off their skills.”
Those in charge of running the competition need to make sure that there are new challenges each year, to keep the competitors, and attendees, interested in coming back.
“At the end of each year’s competition, both committees — plumbing and HVAC — meet. We regroup, and we talk about what went right and what we feel might have the opportunity to do a little better,” Hall says. For the most part, the competition will stay the same, however, little tweaks have been made to present new challenges to the competitors. “So, if we had a competitor returning to the competition, they won’t see the same thing,” Hall adds.
There are competitors returning from last year’s event, as well as those who are not only competing for the first time but also attending PHCC CONNECT for the first time. Each one of them has had a long road to get to Milwaukee.
To qualify, third to fifth-year apprentices participate in competitions throughout the U.S. The winners of the state and local competitions move on to participate in the main event. If there isn’t a local competition, apprentices need to complete an application, which needs to be accompanied by a recommendation from their instructors, speaking to their ability to compete.
Hall says she usually calls the instructors to run down the list of tasks and make sure the individual applying is capable of completing them.
“We want to make sure we don’t have someone who is going to come in and trip on their own feet, or act like they don’t belong there when they compete. It is a tough competition,” Hall says.
The tough competition is a popular event among manufacturers as well.
Manufacturers participate each year in a number of ways. First, they sponsor the contestants and provide assistance for travel and accommodation. But they also provide materials that are used during the competition, as well as prizes for the winners.
“A lot of the apprentices competing will go out during their lunch break to find the manufacturer that sponsored them. They are really excited to meet their sponsors. The energy from that is cool to watch,” Hall says.
What attendees can look forward to is seeing plumbing and HVAC apprentices install equipment and show off skills in real time.
For the plumbing competition, contestants will have to rough an entire bathroom in eight hours. They will do underground work in cast iron and then transition to PVC as it comes through the vent system. Then contestants will simulate the wall system on the side, and to finish, they will need to install fixtures, a sink and a toilet.
HVAC competitors will compete both offsite, at Gateway Community College, and onsite at the convention center, in a brazing contest and refrigerant recovery. They also will have to complete a written exam.
For both competitions, many factors go into who will walk out victorious.
“On the plumbing side, it is accuracy with dimensions that is the biggest thing,” Hall says. “They have a certain allowance — an eighth of an inch — anything beyond that, they are given a deduction.”
Completion is another big factor. Competitors will have eight hours to complete the competition.
Though the contestants will have two days to show their skills, this competition will help inspire others for years to come.
“I think it gives them something to strive for. A lot of the younger apprentices may see it as: ‘I can work up to this level, and I can achieve there. Look at what my coworker is doing,’” Hall says. “To be at that national level is pretty cool. This really gives them something to strive for — to have that kind of success, and to be recognized.”
Contestants will travel from all over the country to compete; each has a different story. We highlighted the journeys of some contestants going to Milwaukee this year.
I had the chance to interview apprentices on their experiences. I also asked each of them to provide a concluding statement that shows why they think it’s important to connect to fellow apprentices and learn more about the industry. Here’s what they said:
Matthew Bonneti from Frank Bonneti Plumbing
Plumbing has been in Matthew Bonneti’s blood for a long time. He has been lucky enough to grow up in a family that has its own plumbing business, thus allowing him to be around the industry his whole life. In fact, to prepare for the competition this year, Bonetti is getting his hands dirty.
“I am going to work every day,” Bonetti says.
Bonetti, who finished in second place in the competition in California, will come to Milwaukee to claim the crown with his knowledge in the field and highly competitive nature.
“It’s important to learn new stuff. Everyone has a different ways of doing stuff.”
Everett Contois from Budget Plumbing
This will be Everett Contois’ first time competing on a national level, and first time competing against anyone besides his classmates. Through a combination of test results, work evaluation and overall school placement, Contois will travel to Milwaukee to compete against other top apprentices in the country. Though, it doesn’t seem that nerves will affect his performance.
“I’m looking forward to some competition, but being relatively new, I have no expectations and therefore am not nervous,” Contois says. “Just being invited is an honor.”
We can’t know it all. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and I’m hoping to learn from everyone at the event.
Juan Figueroa from Focus Plumbing
Juan Figueroa will look to repeat the results in his Nevada competition in Milwaukee this October. In that competition, Figueroa walked away number one in the area, automatically qualifying him to go to Milwaukee. Figueroa has described himself as very nervous but also very competitive heading into the competition.
The trades are not anything new to Figueroa. “I’ve been around the plumbing trade ever since I was 16 years old, and I have been interested in it ever since,” he says.
The self-described risk-taker has no strategy for before the competition but did plan on prepping soon.
Alex Fritz from Deluxe Plumbing & Heating LLC.
Alex Fritz has been working in commercial and residential work for Deluxe over the past three years. During his first year of eligibility he won first place in the Atlantic City competition. To get ready for his first CONNECT competition, Fritz is focusing on the little things. His hope is that, once you figure out the little things, you will be closer to understanding the big picture.
“I am pretty competitive when it comes to things like this,” Fritz says. “I worked really hard to be good at what I do, and to be able to apply and succeed at what I’ve learned is an accomplishment all on its own.”
“It never hurts to learn and gain more info from others in the industry.”
Khary Harrigan from Worth & Co. Inc.
Khary Harrigan wouldn’t be in the industry if it weren’t for his father-in-law, a general contractor. After pursuing a career in computer imaging and graphic design, Harrigan’s father-in-law advised him that plumbing would help support his family. He then stepped in to help him on jobs after seeing his potential.
“I never saw myself doing anything like this as a career option, but once I went to school to learn about plumbing, I found it very interesting and something I truly enjoy doing.”
Harrigan will now head to Milwaukee after scoring the highest out of any New Jersey contestant in the Atlantic City.
“Connecting with other apprentices from different areas of the nation is important, because it will allow me to learn more about how plumbing is practiced in those areas and how I might be able to use those practices in my work.”
Ryan Johnson from Michael & Son Services Inc.
A first-place finish in the Virginia Apprentice Contest helped Ryan Johnson qualify for the competition at CONNECT. Johnson has been honing his plumbing skills by working on residential services, with new construction and commercial properties sprinkled in, over the last four years. The work he does every day helps him prepare for the competition this year.
“To prepare, I am doing the best I can every day at work, and I take pride in what I’m doing,” Johnson says.
“Not as many people get into the trades anymore, so we’re all in the same boat. Plus, knowing more about my trade helps me to be more successful.”
Daniel Judd from David N. Judd Plumbing
While most of the people spent summers relaxing and hanging with friends, Daniel Judd found himself honing his plumbing skills.
“I spent my summers from ages 11-17 working in the field as a helper. By 18, I was fully immersed into the plumbing industry and working full time,” Judd says. That immersion in the field helped him place in the Virginia competition and earn his way to Milwaukee.
To prepare for the competition, Judd has been traveling to Italy to “observe the aqueducts and the bathhouses of the ancient wealthy Romans.” Fully confident in his skill set, Judd believes the same thing as Fictional Racecar Drive Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
“I enjoy meeting other local plumbers.”
Nick Krelwitz from S&K Pump and Plumbing
Nick Krelwitz is a third-year apprentice, who has spent his tenure at S&K Pump and Plumbing in Wisconsin. He didn’t compete in a local competition to get to Milwaukee; instead, he filled out the form and got a recommendation. All it took was hearing about the competition to get competitive juices flowing. After signing on the dotted line, Krelwitz has been getting his hands dirty to get ready. His preparation is simple: “I plumb every day.” Competition will drive the Wisconsin native as he tries to take home the crown for his home state.
“I’m interested to see what mistakes are made, and to learn and grow from them.”
Josh Kutska from Eberhardt Plumbing & Heating Inc.
Studying up on plumbing codes is Josh Kutska’s strategy coming into Milwaukee. The more you know, the easier it could be to work in the tough, two-day competition. The maintenance tech at a local milk processing plant believes the pace of the event is right up his alley; Kutska enjoys working in situations that require you to think on your feet.
“Solving problems gives a sense of satisfaction; this is the type of work we do every day, since we are primarily in the service repair business,” he says.
Kutska’s fast pace mindset has helped his confidence for the event and could help him during this year’s plumbing competition.
“I am looking forward to meeting other apprentices at the contest.”
Evan Mayeaux from Central Texas Plumbing Solutions
Since graduating high school, Evan Mayeaux has been in the plumbing business. Now, with three years of experience, he is excited to show what someone with his experience can do in the Milwaukee.
“I’m very excited to showcase my abilities as a 3rd year apprentice, do the best I can, and have a whole lot of fun doing it at the same time,” he says.
Mayeaux got into the plumbing business because he always loved working with his hands. That love and competitive drive will propel Mayeaux, who plans to bring his “A” game to the competition stage this October.
“Apprentices are the future of the plumbing industry. We’re all in it together, so it’s very important for us all to come together and combine our strengths and ideas for the betterment of our trade.”
Joe Pilachowski from Midwestern Mechanical
This past March, Joe Pilachowski proved what four years of hard work in the plumbing industry can do. After he completed a written test and tested his skills at the SDPHCC competition, Pilachowkski qualified for the national competition. Since then, nothing has changed from his daily routine as he prepares to compete. It has been his knowledge of plumbing, which has grown since knowing “absolutely nothing”— according to Pilachowski — when he started, that has helped settle his nerves going into this year’s event.
“Meeting others of your trade, whether they’re just starting out or been in the trade for years, is a chance to make new friends in the industry and share stories or advice.”
Tony Prins from Domestic Plumbing
Tony Prins is traveling to Milwaukee from Clinton, Iowa. Working for Domestic Plumbing, Prins defines his employer as “a small company with a broad scope of work.” The scope of work over the past five years helped Prin win a local apprentice competition in Iowa earlier this year. Heading to Milwaukee, Prins admits to being a little nervous. However, he is also coming in with experience working in residential service, commercial buildings and new construction and remodeling projects. He will no longer be a big fish in a small pond this October.
“It is important to meet with others in the industry because of the ever-changing scope and practices of our job.”
Zachary Rayburn from Brenneco
No one knows everything. So, when getting ready for this year’s competition, tying up the loose ends can be the difference between finishing first or last in Milwaukee. Zach Rayburn is making sure all questions are answered before Milwaukee.
“I am preparing for this competition by asking lots of questions and being diligent with the tasks I am given at work,” Rayburn says.
Rayburn’s father and grandfather own a plumbing company in his hometown. That time spent with family has helped Rayburn grow.
“Between my father and grandfather, who are extremely skilled tradesman, and the top-notch crew at Brenneco, I feel prepared from all they have shown me,” Rayburn says.
“I would like to connect with my fellow apprentices to learn more about what they do and how they are taught, to broaden my perspective on plumbing techniques.”
Christopher Tudor from Del-Air Mechanical
Five years ago, Christopher Tudor started his plumbing career. Into his fourth year as an apprentice, Tudor has good experience and royalty in his blood — meaning he is a descendent of the Royal Tudor family.
“From what I understand, my dad did some research, and we are related to the royal house of Tudor. His father, my grandpa, came from England,” Tudor says.
Does his family history give him confidence? I wondered. “Well I’m always confident in everything I do no matter what,” he says.
Tudor finds himself coming to Milwaukee after being one of the top members of his class; and in October, we will see if he can reign over the rest of the competition.
Brandon Blankenship from Lee Co.
After placing first place in the Tennessee PHCC competition, Brandon Blankenship has been hitting the books. His strategy to prepare for going up against other HVAC apprentices in the country is to go back through his HVAC school books. He is also in contact with past teachers, in case questions come up.
“I’m just wanting to have some fun but still be competitive,” he says.
His memory will be put through the test when he heads to Milwaukee this October.
“There are always things people understand better than others. Connecting with other apprentices allows you to discuss topics you might struggle with.”
Tyler Chumbley from Holt Plumbing & Heating
Tyler Chumbley proved to his instructors that he is qualified to compete in the event this year. In October, he will have to prove it to his competition that he can excel on the big stage during the HVAC competition.
“My strategy has been to put in the effort and soak up all the info possible while on the job,” he says. His experience includes being a repair technician for the past four years, and he will try to learn more before going to Milwaukee this year.
“I’m constantly trying to hone my skills in the trade and improve my knowledge of technology and tools in this field to be a better, more successful tech.”
RJ Parker from Nugent & Sons
RJ Parker returns to the event this year, and he admits his preparation last year wasn’t the best. “I was little overwhelmed and was probably a little underprepared. It was great exposure to tasks and expectations in the industry that I hadn’t dealt with at work or in schooling,” says Parker.
After his showing last year, Parker has gone more in-depth with his training before coming to Milwaukee. “I have been spending more time with senior technicians at work and trying to pick their brain on issues at work. There has been a little more book review to make sure I am up on wiring diagrams and troubleshooting flow charts, but there should probably be more.”
Experience and practice seem to be Parker’s keys during this time.
“One of the most reassuring things I took out of last year’s competition was that everyone has the same problems. Strategies in troubleshooting or sales may vary slightly, but it is always nice to talk with people who deal with the same challenges that you do on a daily basis.”
Gregory Speaks Jr. from GSM Services
Practice makes perfect. At least that is the strategy that Gregory Speaks Jr. is taking before competition the HVAC apprentice competition this year.
“I am preparing for the competition this year by going through different scenarios of various events of the competition,” says Speaks Jr.
Breaking down scenarios should help Speaks Jr. during his first-time competition on the national stage. Speaks Jr. believes his excellence in the classroom will help him win the HVAC competition this year.
"I believe it is important to connect with other apprentices so we can all learn and grow as a community."
Reid Starkey from The Lane Company
It won’t be a long trip for Reid Starkey to make it the competition this year. Coming from Bloomington Illinois, Starkey’s road to this competition is longer than his drive to Milwaukee.
“I started working for The Lane Co. Inc. when I was 16 years old, working as a shop guy. After high school, I started an apprentice program for HVAC and plumbing,” says Starkey.
Experience in both fields will help in the long run, but Starkey will be focusing on the HVAC side come October.
“I would like to be able to see what we are learning in our program compared to other states. Also, I want to learn about issues they have in different climates compared to Illinois.”