Week-Long UA Programs
Bring 2,500 Members To Area
By Kate Kellogg
The Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti communities already are braced for the late summer onslaught of University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University students. But we tend to forget another significant group of students who converge on the area each August for just one week: the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada. For brevity’s sake, we’ll refer to the organization as the UA.
During the week of August 6-12, some 2,500 additional bodies will be sleeping, eating, and partying throughout Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Unlike typical college students, they arrive discreetly, spend liberally and leave town quickly. Primarily night birds, they’ll be nearly invisible during the day while holed up in classrooms at Washtenaw Community College. Evenings, they will swoop down on restaurants, hotels, golf courses, and night spots, to the joy of the community’s hospitality industry.
WCC will for the 16th consecutive year, host the annual UA Instructor Training Program, the event that draws these union members, instructors, and industry guests from throughout the U.S., Canada, and Panama. The program is the 326,000-member organization’s largest training seminar, which for 52 years has helped members attain official status as “Certified Instructor of the United Association.”
UA officials accurately refer to the intensive, 40-hour week of training as “school.” To hotel and restaurant owners, the event is the area’s largest and most lucrative annual convention. Their staffs sport welcome buttons and T-shirts; they hang banners that herald the association’s return to town. Their enthusiasm is understandable, given the program’s annual $3.9 million impact on the local economy.
That’s the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s estimate, based on surveys of attendees. It includes some 16,000 dinners purchased in area restaurants last year, as well as hotel bookings, car rentals, and many other extras. “They buy gas, shop in our stores, play golf, and partake of all the attractions available here,” says Mary Kerr, president of the AAACVB. “Many UA members bring their families along and make it a vacation week for spouses and kids. They appreciate being here as much as we appreciate having them.”
This year’s attendance may top all others, Kerr says. Participants have so far booked more than 12,000 hotel room nights, which far exceeds last year’s reservation numbers. UA registrations for the program are up by nearly 400 above last year’s levels. In addition to students, about 50 union officers, several hundred guest faculty as well as industry representatives and contractors are expected to spend the week here.
“The UA training week is a huge shot in the arm for the community at a time during the summer when business would otherwise be slow,” says Dan Welch, administrator for UA Programs and Services at WCC. “It’s a great business opportunity for both the cities and the college.”
The UA rents the entire WCC campus for instructor training and pays tuition for all attendees. Home locals pick up travel expenses and room and board for their members. Last year, every state in the U.S. and every Canadian province, plus Panama, was represented at the training week, according to Welch. Faculty also come from all corners of the continent. “We get the best people in their fields for the tech courses. If the best guy in backflow prevention is in San Francisco, we fly him in.”
The typical student has journeyman status and some teaching experience. Instructor certification requires five summers of training at WCC’s regional training center for a total of 200 hours. Some students are post-graduates who are seeking government certification for specialized areas. WCC offers specialized courses in many aspects of welding, plumbing, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), among other trades.
“We fill in areas that a local may not be able to train instructors for, such as hospital piping and medical gas delivery systems,” says Welch. “On the professional side, we offer expertise in teaching technologies and techniques. People are usually selected to teach because of expertise in their craft. But that doesn’t mean they know how to create a written test and learning objectives or use PowerPoint in a classroom.”
UA students can apply instructor certification credits toward an Associate Degree in Industrial Training. Those who have earned the Associate Degree can then transfer credits toward a Bachelor’s of Science Degree at a four-year institution.
The UA/WCC partnership has encouraged many journeymen to further their education and credentials and thereby work their way up through the ranks. Some who began as foreman are now construction managers of big companies. UA members who work hard to advance themselves are among the highest-paid professional trades people in the country, says Scott Clapper, training coordinator for UA Local 190. “That’s not compared to Bill Gates,” he says, “But we enjoy very rewarding and good-paying careers.”
The Instructor Training Program, he adds, “is a phenomenal learning experience.” Clapper has attended for eight years and is in his second year of teaching. “It’s a great way for instructors to pick up ideas and techniques and to learn new technologies. Vendors from throughout the country demonstrate the latest equipment; you can find out what’s going on out on the west and east coasts and down south.”
The program’s hands-on approach shows the trainers-in-training new technologies in areas such as welding and pipefitting or copper work, as demonstrated by representatives from the Copper Development Association and other trade associations. The professional classes bring participants up to speed in computers as well as new methods of online teaching and distance learning.
The college’s new Great Lakes Regional Training Center has become the hub of the UA’s distance learning network, which connects all of the UA locals throughout North America to instructors at WCC. The UA has worked out a preferred scheduling payment system with WCC, which owns and operates the center.
Dedicated by Governor Jennifer Granholm in 2003, the 15,500 square-foot-training facility helps UA members work toward associate degrees in industrial training, construction supervision, or general studies throughout the year. It’s all accomplished via interactive television and online coursework. Every classroom and conference room of the center is wired for distance learning. An online learning server enables UA students to take courses from home at their own pace through the College on Demand program. The program is interactive, in that students can e-mail back and forth with instructors.
“Students can log on at ten in the evening after the kids have been put to bed for the second time, or early in the morning before work,” says Welch. “With online coursework, you’re very much in control of your academic schedule.”
The training center also offers evening college credit courses through interactive television. WCC helps locals coordinate interactive television classes at their local or regional training facilities where students view lectures via two-way televisions. During the main school year, an average of 20 UA locals in various states and provinces participate in evening classes each week.
The ITV system uses compressed signals over phone line or Internet connections. Within this the two-way communication system, a math class in California can receive a problem from a WCC instructor on one television and preview the work they’re sending back to the instructor on the other set. A growing number of students are traveling to the Great Lakes Regional Training Center to attend on-site classes throughout the year. Welch expects the center will eventually generate as much activity during the fall and winter terms combined as it does during the summer week of instructor training. And that means more year-round business for the rest of the community.
As for this month, the UA’s “extracurricular” activities promise to top all celebrations of previous years. On Saturday evening, August 6, a block party in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town will feature classic cars, brats and beer, bands and even an Elvis visitation. On Monday, August 8, Ann Arbor’s Main Street Association will host a Texas-style block party and poker tournament that will include 15 poker tables and five black jack tables. Three bands, a beer tent at Grizzly Peak, and extended outdoor seating at restaurants will keep the party rolling. The affair will be held on Main Street between Washington and William from 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Part of the proceeds goes to the Ann Arbor Jaycees charity of choice and the UA Educational Scholarship Fund. Both events are open to the public.
Despite their penchant for hard work, the UA folks clearly know how to have a good time. Yet in the 16 years they’ve been coming to town, not a single negative incident has occurred, says Mary Kerr, who works closely with UA officials and WCC. “They’re a very well-behaved group,” she says. “We always look forward to their return. They’re not only our guests, but friends as well.”