Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Partners with Butler, Pitt State to Help Apprentices Earn Degrees

Posted July 12, 2022

Plumbers and pipefitters have been training new members of their industry through apprenticeships for more than 125 years. However, in recent years, like many skilled trades, they have struggled to recruit enough new members to replace those retiring. To combat this challenge, UA Local 441 Plumbers and Pipefitters, based out of Wichita, has gotten creative.

The union was finding that many parents opposed their children pursuing an apprenticeship because they wanted their kids to earn a college degree. UA Local 441 decided there was no reason a young person couldn’t do both, so they entered into a memorandum of understanding with Butler Community College to create an associate of applied science degree that students can earn along with their journeyman’s card at the end of their five-year apprenticeship program.

“Many of these kids have been programmed that they have to go to college, but they can’t afford it. Often, no one else in their family has gone to college either,” said John Clark, training director for Plumbers and Pipefitters Apprenticeship Training of Kansas (PPATKS). “Sometimes, they don’t realize the high cost of college and need some sort of way to support themselves while learning. This solution really has helped us get families on board with their kids taking this path.”

Clark’s PPATKS program uses an earn-to-learn model of apprenticeship, where students are paired with a union contractor, who employs and mentors them throughout the program. From September through June, students work five weeks out of six. During the sixth week, they take classes through PPATKS and draw unemployment. At the beginning of the program, Clark said, most start their jobs at about $18 per hour plus benefits. Each year of their training they get an increase, and typically make as much as $39 per hour plus benefits by the time they reach the end of the 8,500-hour program — and get their journeyman card, which proves they’ve completed a formal apprenticeship under a master plumber.

Along the way, students can earn additional market value assets and industry-recognized certifications. The program offers specialties in plumbing, pipefitting, pipe welding and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). Students are encouraged to learn as much about each field as they can. The union underwrites most of the program’s expenses. Students pay only about $600 a year for tuition and books out of pocket, plus union dues, while earning an hourly salary when they’re working.

The main requirement for this program is that a student must turn 18 by June 1 of the year they start the program and be in good standing to graduate from high school or have completed a GED. Applications are taken year-round, starting March 1 of each year. Learn more about how to apply

Students who want to earn an associate of applied science degree while in a PPATKS apprenticeship can do so by simply taking 15 credit hours of online general education and business courses through Butler Community College. Those hours are paired with 47 hours of academic credit earned during their apprenticeship to complete the associate degree. And, with the new Kansas Promise Scholarship, most students can qualify so that the State of Kansas will cover out-of-pocket tuition, books and other expenses for BCC classes, making this an incredibly affordable way to start a career for those who first want to have a degree in hand.

The apprenticeship program seems to be a win-win for both employers and students. Contractors report they like it because it produces a more qualified employee. Michelle Ruder, director of Business, Education, Training and Analysis (BETA) at Butler, said that the partnership often shows many first-generation college students that they can be successful in college — inspiring them to continue their academic studies after completing their associate degree.

In fact, the program’s been so well received that students can now transfer BCC credits to Pittsburg State University for a bachelor’s degree in workforce development — a flexible, online degree program to help busy working adults. These students can even earn an online master of science in technology degree from PSU. Ruder said this is a good option for people who might want to start their own business in the future.

Regardless of how far each student decides to go with the academic side of their training, at graduation time both UA Local 441 and Butler Community College do what they can to put on a big celebration for the graduates. Butler sends a representative to the PPATKS graduation to honor those graduating with both their journeyman card and college degree. John Cressler, BCC’s chief development officer, said this milestone is a big event. 

“For many of these students, this is the biggest achievement they will ever get. Many thought they’d never have the opportunity to go to college. This is a big deal for them, and we make it so,” Cressler said.

Ruder agreed. “The ceremony brings tears to many people’s eyes.”

For Clark, he’s just excited that the program is helping to connect more young people with well-paying, in-demand jobs. Currently, the program serves about 300 students each year, but they must recruit more participants if they want to keep up with the state’s needs.

“Our goal is to train 600 new union members within the next five years,” Clark said. “We’re about halfway there, but we’re excited to see if we can grow quickly with this new opportunity.”

Interested in learning more about how to start a career through an apprenticeship? Find out more about how an apprenticeship in the plumbing, HVAC and pipefitting industry can be paired with a Butler Community College associate degree. Or, visit KansasWorks to learn about other registered apprenticeship opportunities in Kansas.

Introduce younger kids to a career in plumbing through Cool Careers Episode #3! This video is intended for students in fourth through eighth grades.