A day in the life of a plumbing apprentice

(Second in a series) THE LIFE OF a plumbing apprentice is split between on-the-job training and classroom work during the four-year program. Brian Whitehead, 18, entering his second year this month, is in school two evenings a week from September to May, and on the job for 40 to 55 hours a week at Jim Steinle's Atomic Plumbing & Drain Cleaning in Virginia Beach, Va. On the job, Whitehead rides with

(Second in a series)

THE LIFE OF a plumbing apprentice is split between on-the-job training and classroom work during the four-year program. Brian Whitehead, 18, entering his second year this month, is in school two evenings a week from September to May, and on the job for 40 to 55 hours a week at Jim Steinle's Atomic Plumbing & Drain Cleaning in Virginia Beach, Va.

On the job, Whitehead rides with one of Steinle's mechanics everyday.

"The mechanics here are great, and I treat them as if they are my boss," Whitehead says. "Most of them are really good at teaching. They want to see if I really listened to what they had to say."

How does Steinle convince his mechanics to be good teachers?

"That's easy. Almost all of them went through the program too!" says Steinle, who is chairman of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association Educational Foundation's Plumbing Apprentice and Journeyman Training Committee.

He has actively supported the Foundation's apprentice program, not only to give back to the industry, he says, but because it's simply good business. Companies that use the Foundation's apprentice training program agree that the student will receive effective learning with different skills sets.

"These guidelines were developed based on feedback from employers," Steinle says. "It works for the apprentices and it works for us as business owners."

It can also work for the mechanics who get an extra hand on jobs.

"It's up to them how much they let an apprentice do, because at the end of the day, [the mechanic] is responsible for it." Steinle says. "They typically don't get frustrated with apprentices, because they know what it's like, but occasionally there are mistakes."

Whitehead adds: "Starting out in the trade, I thought I was capable of doing more, but [the mechanics] didn't let me. Sometimes I mess up and I don't make their jobs easier, but I try."

Steinle's firm is strictly service and repair, meaning close contact with homeowners. So Whitehead is also learning customer relations, along with the technical skills.

"I watch how (the mechanic) deals with customers," Whitehead says.

It's just such business savvy that the Foundation has recently revised in its apprentice curriculum.

"Our revamped and updated first-year plumbing apprentice manuals in full color became available in mid-August," says Gerry Kennedy, chief operating officer of the Foundation.

The new curriculum was developed after almost a year of meetings with apprentice training and curriculum development experts, including Steinle. Updated manuals for later years will be published over the next 18 months.

"I went through the program, but I didn't know the business end at first," Steinle says.

Whitehead's six hours of classroom time each week is dedicated to "book learning," rather than labs, since the fieldwork delivers that hands-on learning. Adjusting the curriculum to reduce the need for in-school labs allows the Foundation to offer a home study version of the program for use by apprentices who do not work in an area that has a formal program.

Kennedy notes that the Foundation is putting its business management information into its contractor resource center online at www.foundation.phccweb-.org. He said that learning doesn't stop at the end of the four-year program. Steinle says he is still learning himself. He now makes sure Atomic Plumbing has a competitive compensation program to retain his well-trained team.

"That's just been in the last few years, so yes, we're always learning," Steinle says. "But you know what? My trained workforce is so good, I can command a price premium in my market. I can afford to compensate my team well, so I do. It just makes sense."

Next: The financial commitment.