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Portland sheet metal apprentice wins medal at national champioships

BUSINESS TRIBUNE: GAIL PARK - Tom Burns works on joining pieces of sheet metal at the American Heating, Inc. warehouse in the Brooklyn neighborhood. A Portland steel metal apprentice won a bronze medal in the Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) National Craft Championships (NCC) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, this month. Winning the honor was Tom Burns of American Heating, Inc. Enrolled in the ABC Pacific Northwest Chapter apprenticeship program, he’ll graduate this June.

Burns, 25, won a cash prize of $350 from ABC and miscellaneous supplies. Presented with the medal during ABC’s Careers in Construction awards ceremony on March 4, he’s the first Oregon apprentice to win at nationals.

“Tom won big here,” says ABC Pacific Northwest Chapter President and CEO Laurie Kendall. “He was up against 12 national competitors who are the top of the top in the industry. We are insanely proud.”

This year’s champions exhibited dedication, quality craftsmanship and world-class safety techniques. Each competitor, from 80 chapters across the nation, plays an important role in developing the construction workforce.

“Bringing home the bronze means that our apprentice program is good and our instructors are doing a good job teaching important skills,” said Kendall. “It also encourages an ‘I can do that too’ (attitude).”

To win his bronze award, Burns built a life-size portion of a ventilation system based only on plans/blueprints. Under the pressure of time and onlookers, he mathematically created patterns then hand fabricated, assembled and installed sheet metal pieces to form the final design.

“It was very intimidating,” says Burns who was the first competitor to complete the challenge. “The project was very difficult and I made a mistake. I had to go back and re-do some work...I remained focused and didn’t get bent out of shape.”

BUSINESS TRIBUNE: GAIL PARK - A Portland steel metal apprentice, Tom Burns, won a bronze medal at the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) National Craft Championships (NCC) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.This year, the 29th annual NCC showcased a field of more than 200 craft professionals from 32 states. Over the course of two days, entrants participated in an orientation and procession of top-tier ABC colleagues and competed against the best-of-the-best in 15 competitions across 13 crafts. First off, safety was stressed, then an intense two-hour written exam ensued. A six-hour “blueprint-to-final-product” practical test followed in: carpentry, electrical, fire sprinkler, HVAC, instrumentation fitting, insulation, millwright, pipefitting, plumbing, sheet metal, welding-pipe, welding-structural and masonry.

“The atmosphere during the competition was intense and daunting,” recalls Kendall who has been affiliated with the local chapter of ABC for 10 years and arranged for the regionals as its current three-year President. Participants perform the practical test with numerous distractions including one-off skill assessments from the judges and enthusiastic spectators, such as Lee Musser, Burns’ apprenticeship instructor and fellow employee at American Heating, Inc. Sent to the nationals by American Heating’s owners, Joe Paine and Brian Shea, Musser, 38, represented the merit (non-union) shop and learned how the championships emphasized the apprentices and their dedication. He explained that the competition teaches the apprentices that, while money may be the incentive, the (construction) trades can provide a lifestyle.

North Dakota, Alaska, Portland

The road to the NCC started with a local craft competition. For the first time, the ABC Pacific Northwest Chapter conducted a regional contest. On Oct. 16, at Portland’s Northwest College of Construction, mirroring the national format, apprentices battled for a position to compete in their fields in the national spotlight. Only third- and fourth-year ABC apprentices qualified for the regional contest. Jeff Topkok, Ky Topkok and Bruce Kyser were the local judges. Burns and HVAC apprentice Jared Abbott won the spots and represented Oregon and Southwest Washington. Abbott, of Gohman Mechanical Inc., did not place at the national championship.

Burns wishes he had gotten involved in the apprentice program sooner. Following high school, he attended North Dakota College for two years while working in a Sears’ warehouse. The pay wasn’t good and college expenses were “too much.” Transferring to Alaska, he nailed down a roofing job, then a position with Klebs Mechanical as a mechanical contractor. The company set him up in Alaska’s local ABC apprenticeship program.

“I was getting a prevailing wage, but then the work slowed down,” he explains. He decided to move to Portland. American Heating hired him three years ago and he entered the workforce as a second-year sheet metal apprentice.

Valuable training

Portland’s construction labor pool is facing a severe shortage. In addition to many journeymen and managers reaching retirement age, other experienced craft professionals have strayed from the trades for something different — something more lucrative and stable. Consequently, companies like American Heating, an 18-year ABC member with 298 employees, promote the ABC apprenticeship program. They rely on ABC for its ability to attract and retain the most talented individuals necessary to meet the nation’s ever-increasing construction needs. Construction companies, like the Brooklyn neighborhood business, are becoming more and more involved in the totality of the field. American Heating offers a variety of services including voluntary in-shop training, participation in career fairs and facilitation of the local construction contest. Musser, the company’s field foreman, cultivates new workers. Not only is he a six-year apprenticeship program fourth-year sheet metal instructor, he consulted and donated his time to prepare the regionals. “I don’t handpick who gets through to the next level. The students have to earn it,” he says. “I want to find the guys (men and women) who work the hardest. Some day they’ll take over my job.”

Earnings in the construction field can be great. Training is rigorous, work demanding and advancement can come quickly. According to Kendall, students come out of the program without college debt and usually work for the training agent who initially hired and supported them. “They become like family,” she says.

Burns is currently managing the flow of American Heating’s materials at Q21, a 7-story mixed-use development in Northwest Portland. He’s making a respectable salary while he’s learning.

Looking forward to receiving his journeyman card upon certification, he plans on working towards a journey-level position. “I have a long ways to go,” he acknowledges. “There’s always room to improve.”

COURTESY: JERRY THOMPSON - From left to right, ABC National Chair Elect Chuck Goodrich, ABC Northeast Region Vice Chair Stephanie Schmidt, ABC National Chair David Chapin, Tom Burns, National Craft Championships Vice Chairman Shon Smith, National Craft Championships Chairman Mitch Clark and ABC Mountain West Region Vice Chair Ray Zamora.

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