CATCHING UP WITH PAST NATIONAL APPRENTICE COMPETITION COMPETITORS
Thirty years ago, the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) launched the National Apprentice Competition in 1994 at the 13th Annual AFSA Convention & Exhibition in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That inaugural year, the competition was well represented, with seven apprentice finalists from member companies nationwide, all competing to be crowned the champion apprentice.
Of course, getting to compete was an accomplishment in and of itself. Apprentices began by preparing for the exams given by AFSA, all of which were based on AFSA’s Training for Excellence apprenticeship training course. Apprentices first had to take a 70-question written exam to qualify to compete and were scored within their state. After receiving the top score for their state, the apprentices then had to take another longer test to qualify as best in their region. Though the testing didn’t stop there—after getting through the first two rounds of testing, the top seven apprentices would take their final three-hour written test at the convention, which would follow with an installation thereafter. Apprentices would install a mini fire sprinkler system as hundreds of AFSA convention attendees, members, and guests watched. Grading for these miniature systems was determined by accuracy, craftsmanship, and safety.
While the testing and qualifying procedure has changed over the years, the excitement and anticipation of competing continue to grow. As AFSA celebrates its 30th anniversary, we’re checking in with past competitors. What have they been up to since competing, and how have their lives changed since participating in the NAC?
Joe Headrick, 2019 Champion
Joe Headrick learned of the fire protection industry through a family friend. Headrick still works for Rapid Fire Protection in Bismarck, North Dakota, as he was when he competed just a few years ago. Headrick notes, “The NAC helped me prove something to myself and my employer [which] has helped me advance in the fire protection industry.” Additionally, Headrick points to a variety of techniques for fire sprinkler installation. “The competition gave me the ability to see how other people working for other companies do the same work and how different their styles and approaches are.” Headrick ended with a promising sentiment of networking opportunities, stating, “It was a great experience employment-wise and for personal growth. The other apprentices at this competition were just outstanding people, and it was great to work beside them.”
Connor Jones, 2021 2nd Place Finalist
Connor Jones became familiar with the industry from his neighbor, who he worked for just out of high school. Jones’ journey officially began when he worked for Mr. Fire Sprinkler in Colorado, which focused on remodels and assisted living. Jones later went on to work for Rapid Fire Protection, the company he represented at NAC in 2021, and, since then, he has become a foreman for them.
Jones reflects on NAC, “A big advantage of the competition is getting noticed, both by your employer and others. It’s a great confidence boost. Getting there also shows you opportunities you may not otherwise realize exist. The last advantage it gave me was to realize how many other highly qualified, competent, and passionate young people there are in the industry. I can’t advance until someone can fill the role I already do. It helped me realize a large portion of my focus should be helping others increase in knowledge and ability.”
Jones continues, “The advice I’d give my younger self and young people getting in the workforce is something Mike Rowe of ‘Dirty Jobs’ fame has often talked about. When looking for a job or career, don’t focus so much on what your ‘passion’ is. Go where your skills are, where you can succeed, look for opportunities, and bring your passion. If I’d followed my high school passion, I’d be a broke musician. I wasn’t passionate about sprinklers in high school and college, but I sure am now.”
Chance McCollister, 2017 Champion
Chance McCollister started in the fire sprinkler industry after learning about it from his father, a general contractor, which eventually led to him getting a job with a fire sprinkler company. Some time passed after his championship, and McCollister was offered a job for another company that was starting up where he lived. McCollister says he took a leap of faith and has been working at Austin Fire Systems for the past four years, where he is the lead sprinkler fitter. While there, the company has also supported McCollister in earning his NICET Level II certification and several licenses.
“The National Apprentice Competition, along with a lot of supportive people, helped me mature and look deeper into myself,” McCollister reflects. “I feel like the competition further increased my motivation to be the best at what I do as a career.”
McCollister also notes that the NAC was advantageous for him because it helped him be more decisive when troubled with roadblocks and made him more confident in his ability to excel in his career. He adds, “Never hold back. Know what you want to achieve, and don’t give up until you are satisfied with the results! There is always something you can do better or learn, so stay humble.”
Joe Mientkiewicz, 2016 3rd Place Finalist
Joe Mientkiewicz first learned about the fire sprinkler industry through his church. In 2013, his church was building an addition, and the company they had originally hired to install the sprinklers was a no-show. His church then hired Simplex-Grinnell (now Johnson Controls, Inc.), and Mientkiewicz volunteered his time to help. He worked closely with the company learning the ins and outs of sprinkler installation. Having yet to graduate high school, he was offered a job upon graduating. Mientkiewicz notes that seeing the action in person helped him to decide to follow this as his career. Mientkiewicz went on to compete in the NAC in 2016, and since placing third, he has been working as a fire sprinkler fitter/technician. Most recently, he has become a fire alarm technician and is working toward NICET certification.
“The NAC helped me get to where I am today by bolstering my confidence in my abilities. I feel as though I have a good knowledge/understanding and some credibility from doing the competition.” He continues, “I have talked to people from other companies, and a lot of them expressed interest in hiring me, partially because of my attending the competition.”
Mientkiewicz further notes that the NAC and AFSA helped get him to where he is today. “AFSA has helped my career by providing good, standardized training that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten and pushing me harder than I would’ve pushed myself.” He continues, “The apprenticeship was especially helpful for keeping gaps out of learning. I also did a beginner design course in November of 2019 that helped me to be a better installer. I had been thinking about doing design. Since then, plans have changed, but going through NFPA 13 page by page with the instructors then and working through problems helped me be better prepared for issues that I may encounter out in the field. Having that design course under my belt also gave my supervisor confidence in me as well. I was only 23 when I completed it, and even though I was young, I was still able to have lots of responsibility to run new construction sprinkler projects as well as retrofit projects with Johnson Controls.”
What’s more, AFSA helped one of Mientkiewicz’s friends get a job as well. “On another positive note, I was able to take a friend with me to the competition. Consequently, he now works as an inspector for the same company I do. I have another close friend who just completed the apprentice program that I work with almost every day.”
“I’d like to add that I’d highly recommend that every apprentice should try to qualify for the competition,” Mientkiewicz concludes. “Even if you don’t qualify, the extra amount of study alone will greatly help you in your knowledge and understanding of your career, making you a more valuable asset to yourself and your company. Besides, it’s a great opportunity to have some friendly competition and a great time!”
Alex Saleik, 1995 2nd Place Finalist
Alex Saleik got his start in the industry shortly after high school graduation with a job offer from Jay Strickland of Strickland Fire Protection, Forestville, Maryland. He started out in the fabrication shop for the first year, then went in the field for eight years, completing his apprenticeship program and competing in the NAC during this time.
Saleik stayed with Strickland Fire Protection and moved into design where he worked together on big projects for roughly 20 years with then Strickland Quality Control Manager/Senior Project Manager John August Denhardt, P.E., FSFPE (now AFSA’s vice president of engineering & technical services). Saleik is now a design manager at Strickland and is NICET IV certified.
“The [NAC] motivated me to continue to work hard and provided me with a platform for other job opportunities in the industry,” Saleik says. “[AFSA] has provided me the opportunity to meet other talented people in the industry and learn from them. The classes being taught by AFSA, either through conventions or webinars, are top-notch. They teach in a way that is entertaining and not boring. It’s nice to know that you can reach out to them any time with code questions.”
He continues, “The [NAC] provided me with the knowledge and confidence of doing things the right way, not taking shortcuts and sacrificing quality. It also helped me work under pressure. Competing in the [NAC] was a great experience for me. It was nice to see how all the key people in the industry made you feel important and offered support. It motivates you to do your best and make your company proud. I also have a son who is now in the apprenticeship program—man, I feel old,” Saleik says with a laugh. [John stated in response to Alex stating he is feeling old, “Alex, that is because you are old!”]
The Legacy Continues
Calling all apprentices! If you haven’t competed, the time is now—and what better time to compete than during the 30th anniversary? This September, seven finalists will travel to Orlando to compete in AFSA’s 30th National Apprentice Competition. Apprentices will go through their first round of testing between May 15-June 16, 2023. Top test performers within their region will then receive an expense-paid trip to Orlando to compete, where they are dubbed as AFSA’s honorable guests, complete with a complimentary registration for their employer to attend, along with tools and cash prizes. AFSA’s 30th National Apprentice Competition will take place on Saturday, September 9, at Signia by Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. Show us what you’ve got and submit an application form today at www.firesprinkler.org/competition.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sydney Richardson is the communications specialist with AFSA.