ANN ARBOR, Mich. - One should not be surprised if Ernesto Oliva finishes among the top at the national apprenticeship competition, put on by the United Association (UA) of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting, Sprinkler Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada. Competition ends this week (Aug. 14) in Ann Arbor, Mich.
There is no doubt that Oliva, currently employed by DebonAir Mechanical Air Conditioning in Hialeah, Fla., will give it his best shot. It’s rather amazing how far a big dream and passionate dedication can take a person like Oliva.
“DebonAir is very proud of Ernie,” said Charlie Aleshire, owner and vice president at DebonAir. “He is an essential part of the DebonAir team. His attitude and work ethic are unparalleled.”
NARROW ESCAPESeven years ago, Oliva escaped Cuba and came to this country in a speedboat filled with refugees. He was determined to start a new life in America, and now he is using that same steadfast determination to win major awards in his chosen career.
Oliva recently completed his apprenticeship at Miami’s Air Conditioning Technical Center, commonly known as AC Tech. He also recently won the third in a series of four apprenticeship contests and is now ready for the national finals. To win, he knew he had to hit the books.
“My biggest challenge has been to keep studying to make sure I will win,” said Oliva. “When I get home from a long day of work, I may want to go to sleep, but I studied instead.”
You see, Oliva is no stranger to working hard to achieve a goal. He was 28 years old when he decided to escape the government suppression of his native Cuba. He bought and resold rum to raise the $8,000 he needed to buy a ticket to freedom: the last opening left on a 32-passenger speedboat.
En route, a boat filled with armed Cuban soldiers approached Oliva’s vessel. Fortunately for Oliva and the other passengers, the soldiers turned and left without firing a shot. Seven hours later, the determined man and his companions arrived in America.
“I sacrificed many things, leaving my mom, sister, and beloved grandfather, but for a great cause; the most beautiful of all - to be free and useful to society,” said Oliva.
He studied hard and became a citizen of the United States. He began taking classes at a local vocational school, where a teacher told him about Local Union 725’s technical training center in Miami - AC Tech. The center trains workers for the mechanical contracting industry, providing graduates with expertise in HVACR, as well as piping.
He said he found the career he loves and is determined to be the best of the best. He will graduate to journeyman status on Sept. 1.
Art Warren, director of AC Tech, has nothing but good to say in regards to Oliva.
“If everyone had the same dedication, desire, and drive as Ernesto, our industry’s problems would be solved,” said Warren.
MOVING UP THE COMPETITION LADDERWhile the UA holds its national apprenticeship competitions every year, AC Tech competed in UA’s state-level competition from 1955 until 1974, when it was discontinued. After 1974, the Florida training center held yearly competitions among its apprentices. Fortunately for Oliva, last year AC Tech started to compete at the state level again.
Always one to take on a challenge, this year Oliva opted to enter the state’s competition, having already won a local title. To no surprise, he won at the state level, keeping the AC Tech tradition alive. During the 20 years of the state competition, apprentices from the center have won 16 times.
Oliva moved on to compete at the regional apprenticeship level, where 13 states were represented. The competition consisted of a written test and 12 hands-on projects. These projects allowed the contestants to demonstrate, among other objects, their problem-solving skills. In addition to HVACR, the other categories in the competition included pipefitting, welding, plumbing, and sprinkler fitting.
At the regional level, 12 judges evaluated the contestants. Warren was the regional competition’s HVACR chairman, and he also served as a judge, along with Mack MacKinnon, training coordinator at AC Tech.
Contestants were identified by numbers rather than names to ensure anonymity.
“They tested me on what to do out in the field, for both residential and commercial projects,” said Oliva, who did the Florida center proud by finishing first.
This week he will find out how he rates at the national level. Contest winners will be announced and honored on Aug. 14 at the graduation ceremony, to take place on the campus of Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich. Oliva knows his greatest supporters are his family members in Cuba.
“My mom is waiting for me to win the next one,” said Oliva. “My sister is sure I can do it.”
He just promises to do his best. He said he misses his family but he works hard so he can send them money on a regular basis.
Although his apprenticeship at AC Tech is over, Oliva said he will not be taking any time off now that he is out of school. He will keep on working and studying, he promised. In his estimation, one reason why he keeps winning competitions is because he is always practicing his skills.
“In all five years of my apprenticeship, I have never run out of work,” he said. “I’ve been working since the first day.”
For more information, visit www.actech.jobs.