The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 18, 2013

From Helmet to Hardhat to national top apprentice

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

DEARBORN – For the second straight year, Boilermakers Local 169 hosted the National Apprenticeship Contest – and produced the winner of the competition.

Christopher Opalewski, a graduated Local 169 apprentice, won the National Outstanding Apprenticeship Award. Chris was among eight contest participants from across the country who each placed first or second in their regional competition, and they faced off Sept. 22-26 to take a written examination and perform skills testing before judges. Winners and the runner-up from each of the four regions – Western States, Great Lakes, Southeast, and Northeast – competed in the national event.

“I appreciate the Local 169 apprenticeship program for teaching me everything I learned,” Opalewski said. The 28-year-old Army infantry veteran, who served two tours in Iraq, was brought into the Boilermakers apprenticeship through Helmets to Hardhats, an AFL-CIO program that helps returning members of the military transition into construction jobs.  In his five years with Local 169, Opalewski has worked at power plants, a paper mill, and a petroleum refinery.

“My experience with the Boilermakers has been amazing,” he said. “I knew nothing of the trade when I got out of the Army, but a lot of guys helped me out.”

Opalewski, together with Boilermakers Local 85 (Toledo) apprentice Tim Howe, also won the team competition. “This contest definitely tests you on everything you have seen in the field,” Chris said. 

The apprenticeship contest is held in the same region for two consecutive years before moving to another locale. Last year, the top national prize was also handed out to a Michigander: Local 169’s Blaine Coulter. Prior to that, the last Local 169 member to win the top award was Dennis Bishop in 2004.

“I’m very proud of the hard work that Chris did to earn this award,” said Local 169 Business Manager Bob Hutsell. “He did a great job. I’m also proud of our training staff, and I appreciate our membership for their support in allowing us to host this contest, which is a lot of work.”

This was the 26th annual Boilermakers competition, and participating in the five-day event is no vacation. Over the course of five eight-hour days, contestants display their skills in hands-on events like welding, rigging, arc-gouging, layout, tube rolling, waterwall repair, tool identification, and ropes, knots, and reeving. A host of judges from around the country evaluate their work.

“The competition helps us to evaluate where our training program is at,” said John Standish, lead instructor with the Boilermakers National Apprenticeship Program. “It allows us on a national level to see where we need to improve our training, to see what we might need to do more of. We see where a guy from this area might be weak in one area or another, and it gives us a measuring stick to help us improve.”

Standish called Local 169 “one of the premier locals in terms of training. They’ve won their share of awards, and it’s not by luck.”

Local 169 Apprenticeship Coordinator Mark Wertz said as industry needs change, so does the training. “When our contractors need us to change, or when there are new welding techniques, or there’s a better way to do something, we incorporate that into our program,” Wertz said.

The apprenticeship competition took place at Local 169’s offices/training center in Allen Park. The awards banquet was held Sept. 26 at The Henry in Dearborn.

“We are pleased for this opportunity to recognize the excellence of Boilermakers National Apprenticeship Program apprentices and their dedication to teamwork,” said Martin D. Spencer Jr., BNAP Coordinator. “This competition spotlights up-and-coming Boilermakers, and each competitor knows that they tried their best for themselves, their family, their local lodge, their area, our organization and the industry in general. In that way, everyone is a winner.”