National Apprentice Competition 2021 Winner Matthew Tyre, Titan Fire Protection, Inc., Vista, California.

The Importance of Apprenticeship

AFSA Launches New Apprenticeship Program

Like many of you, I have been around this industry for more than 45 years and, like many of you, I have heard the refrain, “When we’re busy, we don’t have time for training and when we’re not busy, we don’t have money for it.”

I’m also fond of sharing the comments of one of my former employers who said, “I don’t invest in training programs because people just end up leaving us for a buck and a truck.” My response was, “What happens when we don’t train them and they stay?” These quotes are not intended to call anyone out or to be provocative, but let’s be real about two important points:

1. The entire construction industry does not have enough manpower for the backlog of work or the future needs of our industry. This is no less a factor in the fire sprinkler business.

2. We are paying higher wages for lesser-trained personnel which is, in turn, adding to our liabilities every day.

With many cities and states adopting $15-per-hour minimum-wage laws and the fast-food industry offering dead-end jobs at $17 per hour and more, our industry is competing for the same group of potential new hires. You cannot grow your company without skilled labor. No, it does not take five years to teach someone how to twist pipe, but there is a lot more to being a good fitter or foreman, foreperson, or field supervisor than just picking up the pipe, sticking it into a hole, and turning it to the right.

Safety on the jobsite, stewardship of tools and equipment, safe driving of company vehicles, avoiding water damage claims, communication skills, managing others, and dealing with jobsite change orders are just a few of the skills needed to become an effective fitter or foreperson. Experience takes time and willingness, along with the aptitude and a positive attitude—not to mention the fact that helpers and apprentices help us reduce the cost per hour for the crews on site.

We usually see two models for companies hiring labor to keep the pace with open projects. The first are the farmers, who grow people and spend the time and money to train and educate. The second are the hunters, who go after the people the farmers are training. Often the hunters are picking off “almost-trained” people and paying the wage rates for well-trained people. As the “round robin” of people moving around continues, our industry ends up paying overly inflated wages to people who have little experience and who expose their employers to greater levels of liability. None of this creates a promising image for the company or the industry. 

So, what is the solution? Apprenticeship programs are the solution, and the AFSA Fire Sprinkler Fitter Apprentice Training is the best and only program available for open shop fire sprinkler contractors. Whether you’re using our books and assessments through an ABC chapter or any other means, the AFSA program is the only curriculum available for training merit shop fire sprinkler fitters. In support of our members and our sprinkler fitter training programs, AFSA will be launching a new support program to assist the process of hiring and managing your apprentices and their progress through apprenticeship training. 

Following an initial beta-test period to ensure everything works seamlessly for virtual instruction (scheduled for Quarter 4 of 2022), AFSA will open registration for 2023 Quarter 1 enrollment. Our program will be a National Guideline Standard registered with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). AFSA will provide multiple options for the management and/or education of your apprentices to fulfill the needs of members. 

Under this DOL model, each individual company will need to apply to have an approved Program Standard registered with the DOL. AFSA will provide the guidelines necessary for a successful program and take the burden of discovery off your plate by providing templates and assisting you in executing them. This model is needed because the apprentices must be your employee and not AFSA’s employee.

Next, we are planning three options for participation in AFSA’s training program which basically includes:

• Option 1 provides the books and assessments (testing) only. Testing online will include electronically proctored exams. This will be similar to existing offerings but the curriculum has been updated and a new platform will be used for testing.

• Option 2 adds our virtual classroom training twice per month online with both live and recorded sessions. The live sessions offer an opportunity for apprentices to interact with instructors and ask questions in a live, interactive setting. 

• Option 3 adds the option of having AFSA staff assist with administering your program with a fee for each apprentice. Services included with this option are still being finalized at the time this was submitted. 

These are high-level summaries of the services we’re planning to deliver with more specific information to be available soon. AFSA is leading the way in helping our members grow their businesses with a solid foundation, beginning with apprenticeship as a core element. Look for more information guiding you to a landing page on our website, firesprinkler.org, and at our booth at AFSA41. Registration will start around late September and continue through early January for the first class. You do not have to have your individual DOL program approval before enrolling apprentices or starting the training program. 

AFSA staff will introduce specific information during an AFSA41 seminar session to share details and answer specific questions about this program. As the program develops and we receive feedback from participating companies, AFSA staff will evaluate the services we provide and adjust as needed. We are excited and expecting a lot of interest and participation in this new program, and we will provide more detail in the weeks and months ahead, including costs associated with each level of service, who to register and whom to contact for assistance.

Again, this is a work in progress, so all details are not yet ready for prime time but we’re close to launching the program so look for more information coming soon.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bob Caputo, CFPS, is president of AFSA. He currently serves as chair of NFPA 24/291 Private Water Supply Piping Systems committee and as an alternate member of NFPA 13 Sprinkler System Installation Criteria committee. Caputo has written and presented seminars throughout the world on fire protection and life-safety systems and has developed AFSA and NFPA education and training materials. Contact him via email at bcaputo@firesprinkler.org.


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