UA 597 has a new $15 million training center - and success in recruiting people to fill it.

United Association Local 597 Local 597 has been around since 1885 and is the largest pipefitter union in the country with almost 9,000 members. Its territory spans a big chunk of the industrial Midwest, extending from the greater Chicago area all the way to the Wisconsin and Iowa borders, and into parts of Indiana. UA General President Bill Hite is the third generation of his family to come out of 597, starting with a grandfather who enrolled in its apprenticeship program way back in 1898. A son is now a fourth-generation 597 pipefitter.

Mechanical contractors in the region tell of sluggish business for the past several years, but that hasn't prevented the recent opening of a new $15 million training center for UA 597 in the Chicago south suburb of Mokena. Barely a year and a half passed between the first site work in November 2003 and the grand opening this past May 1.

Plenty of bigwigs were on hand for the dedication and open house celebration in late April. Bill Hite came, of course, as did Ed Sullivan, head of the Building and Construction Trades Dept. of the AFL-CIO. The governor and lieutenant governor of Illinois both made appearances and expelled enough hot air at the dedication ceremonies to raise Chicago's chilly springtime temperatures by several degrees.

Sorry, couldn't resist, but no more cheap shots. There's not a lot more to poke fun at anyway, because what we're dealing with here is some of the industry's most serious business.

The training center is a spectacular two-story building with 198,000 sq. ft. under roof and grounds spread over 21 acres. The spacious interior includes a 10-ton crane bay and area where scaffolding, aerial lifts, rigging situations and other construction procedures can be replicated, as well as a refrigeration area for apprentices to attain hands-on experience with working models of equipment.

Outside is a pipe rack on a basketball-court-sized concrete pad, for cutting, supporting and connecting pipe through various processes. There are 14 classrooms, two computer rooms, an auditorium, a lecture hall and a weld shop with 100 booths. People who have seen most of them say it's the most complete training center in the industry, and maybe in all of the construction trades.

Quite impressive, but I came away fascinated less by the bricks and mortar than the flesh and blood learning the trade inside the building. Despite soft business conditions, the union currently is training more than 600 apprentices - along with some 250 journeymen upgrading their skills in the new facility. The apprentices range in age from 18 to 55 (!), with an average age of 29.

The latter tells a significant story.

While chatting with one of the 597 business agents during the open house visit, I asked if they faced the same recruitment problems I hear from most apprenticeship committees throughout the industry. Not a bit, came the reply. UA 597 gets thousands of applicants each year and ends up accepting something like one out of 10. At that ratio, the caliber of apprentices is likely to be superb. “Heck, we even have college graduates enrolled,” the agent bragged.

Their relatively advanced average age bespeaks the fact that many 597 apprentices turned to pipefitting as a career option only after stints at other jobs. Some may have investigated the trade option in their teens, but rejected it for something more glamorous. Then, after being off mom's and dad's payroll for a decade or more, they learned how tough it is to live off the income earned by most young high school and even college graduates. I suspect even apprentice wages top what many of them earned in previous jobs.

UA 597 journeymen typically earn between $60,000 and $100,000 a year, the business agent told me. Some will sit on the bench from time to time, but the top pipefitters are almost always in demand, even when business isn't great. The work they do can't be handled by semi-skilled handymen or Third World immigrants with limited command of English.

It felt good to hang around a place where high value still gets placed on craftsmanship. And, where one can find blue-collar workers who can afford the better things in life just like people who wear suits and ties to work.