Plenty of Dignitaries attended the dedication of the new UA Pipefitters' Local Union 597 Training Center. Helping cut the ribbon are (from left) Mike Arndt (patting child on the shoulder), training coordinator, UA; James Buchanan, business manager, UA Local Union 597;Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich; Stephen Lamb, executive vice president, Mechanical Contractors Association of Chicao; Stephen Toth, international representative, UA/Ill. Pipe Trades Association Advancement Promotion Program; William P. Hite, general president, UA; and Robert Chiszar, mayor of Mokena, Ill.
When it comes to education and training, give the Midwest an A.

Not only is Ranken Technical College in St. Louis currently revitalizing its HVACR program ("Ranken Prepares For Upgrade," April 25), but in nearby Mokena, Ill., United Association (UA) Pipefitters' Local Union 597 just dedicated its new, $15 million Pipefitters' Training Center.

The two-story facility covers 198,000 square feet, is set on a 21-acre site, and is filled with state-of-the-art equipment. It was constructed to teach much-needed welding, piping, and HVACR service apprentices.

Dignitaries were out in force at the May 1 opening ceremonies. They included William P. Hite, general president, UA; Stephen Lamb, executive vice president, Mechanical Contractors Association of Chicago; James Buchanan, business manager, UA Local Union 597; and Rod Blagojevich, governor of Illinois. Smiling the most, however, was John Leen, training director for UA Local 597.

"We had been using our previous training center for 27 years and had outgrown it," said Leen. "Our business manager, James Buchanan, wanted to ensure we had the room and equipment necessary to continue being the best trained in the industry."

Wearing smiles inside the new Pipefitters' Training Center are (left to right) James Buchanan, business manager, UA Local Union 597; and Rod Blagojevich, governor of Illinois.

Hands-On, Safety First

The center features two fully equipped computer rooms, 14 classrooms, parking for about 360 vehicles, and an auditorium and lecture hall, each with distance learning capabilities. There are two tool rooms, a 10-ton crane bay, and spacious practice areas, including:

  • An area where scaffolding, aerial lifts, rigging situations, and other construction procedures can be replicated.

  • A refrigeration area for apprentices to attain hands-on experience with working equipment.

  • A pipe rack on a basketball-court-sized concrete pad outside that offers the ability for cutting, supporting, and connecting pipe through various processes.

    Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn speaks to guests during the training center's open house.
    Leen is proud of the fact the facility is a true hands-on center where safety is stressed. For instance, it can simulate placing a 300-ton chiller on top of a high building.

    "Our apprentices can practice complex aerial procedures using cranes and remote-controlled lifts," he said.

    "And, they can work at their own speed under close supervision, using OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] safety measures for such heights. Few training facilities offer this kind of specialized learning opportunity."

    Safety must come first, Leen said, noting that accident prevention is a key concern to cost-conscious construction end users.

    "Worksite accidents increase lost time, decrease productivity, delay a project's completion, and send insurance rates soaring. We observe safety measures at every step, and drug test apprentices entering the program. A highly skilled, reliable workforce ensures productivity and reduces lost-time accidents."

    The new UA Pipefitters' Local 597 Training Center is in Mokena, Ill.

    More Training

    The new facility's staff includes 10 full-time and 90 part-time instructors.

    "The four-year apprenticeship program is split between day and night programming," said Leen, "with a 12-to-one student-to-trainer ratio by day, and an eight-to-one ratio by night."

    UA Local 597, which represents nearly 9,000 men and women in the piping industry, currently has 606 apprentices whose ages range from 18 to 55. The center also offers continuing education for journeymen or experienced workers, with an average of 250 attending classes each weeknight.

    Leen said Local 597 members work in the mechanical contracting field, which requires the skills of piping professionals for a wide variety of projects, including HVACR service and the installation and repair of industrial piping, steam piping, medical gas systems, and more.

    Hite noted that years of hard work and dedication went into the new center.

    "The new Pipefitters' Training Center stands as a tribute to the efforts of business manager Jim Buchanan and all the former and current officers and members of UA Local 597," said UA general president Hite. "We have always been committed to providing contractors with the most skilled and qualified workforce anywhere."

    Lamb said the multimillion dollar training center is a solid investment in the future. "We in the union mechanical industry have always claimed we are better because we are better trained. The day we can no longer say that - the day our people are anything less than the best trained in the industry - is the day we become a commodity. All that matters with a commodity is the cheapest price.

    "UA Local 597 and MCA Chicago have always been committed to providing top-of-the-line quality and service," Lamb said.

    The two-story, $15 million complex covers 198,000 square feet and is set on a 21-acre site with parking for about 360 vehicles.

    Staying Ahead

    Leen agreed that the center will help the union stay ahead of the competition. Local 597 serves the Chicago area as well as a territory that extends north to south from the Wisconsin border to Kankakee, Ill., and west to east from East Moline, Ill., to New Carlysle, Ind.

    "The foundation of our local union is continuous education, and our apprentices have received the most thorough training in the building trades," he said. "Plus, the center was paid for through contributions from our union members, which shows how much our members care about education and the expertise of their future colleagues."

    "Speed plus skill equals productivity," said Leen. "Our advanced training center produces workers who live up to that equation, as well as the expectations of the business world."

    For more information on UA Local 597, visit

    Sidebar: Meier Supply Spearheads Tech Certification Initiative

    While the Midwest may be the current hotbed for promising education news, Meier Supply Co. earns some positive points for the East. Meier Supply, headquartered in Johnson City, N.Y., recently announced that it is a coalition partner of North American Technician Excellence (NATE). The HVACR distributor - which has 13 branch locations in New York and Pennsylvania, as well as a 36,000-square-foot distribution center in Johnson City - has begun offering NATE tests locally.

    "NATE certification is a win-win for everyone involved throughout the service chain," said Frank Meier Jr., president of Meier Supply, which employs 92 full-time and 15 part-time associates. "Manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, contractors, technicians, and customers all benefit from having heating and cooling equipment that is professionally installed and serviced. That's why we're behind NATE's certification program."

    "No one has time for callbacks, and certification provides a degree of consumer assurance. That's the value of certification," said Rex Boynton, president of NATE.

    "Better-trained technicians benefit everyone in the area," added Meier, who is also past president of Heating, Airconditioning, and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI). "If homeowners buy an expensive piece of equipment, they expect it to be properly installed. The best way to ensure proper installation procedures is to certify technicians."

    For more information, contact George Story at Meier Supply: 607-724-2451.

    Publication date: 05/23/2005