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HCC opens its doors to trades

Students take advantage of a partnership between the college and the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2000


TAMPA -- After years of working as a hotel manager, Nan Cooper decided to go back to school and finally become what she always had wanted to be: a welder.

At 39, the married mother of two is in her fourth year of a five-year apprenticeship program run by Hillsborough Community College for Local 123 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union.

This is the first year of the alliance between the college and the union local. The local had approached the college and asked it to take over administration of the program, which serves about 80 students from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties.

The partners hope the affiliation will attract younger applicants, fresh out of high school, to the college and to the apprenticeship program, said union spokesman and plumber Julian Hyatt.

The union provides the classroom building and the instructors, while HCC pays their salaries. Students enroll through HCC, which allows it to claim state funding for everybody enrolled in the union's program.it

"It looks like a good fit with the college's mission," said Fred Webb, dean of HCC's environmental and technical division. "It's more of a technical field than it used to be."

Cooper, for example, is studying orbital welding, in which the welder programs a computer to direct the welding machinery, instead of relying on human hands. It's used in situations where welds must be absolutely perfect every time: nuclear plants, silicon chip manufacturing, spacecraft construction.

That kind of clean, comfortable work environment is not what most welders experience. For now, Cooper's work at Ashland Chemical Co. in Polk County is just what anyone would expect.

"It's hot, heavy work," she said. "You sweat all the time. You get burned a lot. For a woman, it's not glamorous. You don't have fingernails."

To Cooper, the advantages outweigh the discomforts.

The apprenticeship program cost her nothing. It's free to those accepted after filling out applications and being interviewed by local officials. Applicants must be at least 18, have a high school diploma or GED and be ready to provide transcripts.

Aptitude with mathematics and science helps, said Hyatt.

Once accepted, apprentices spend the next five years training on the job and putting in 240 hours of classroom time each year. Starting wages for a first-year apprentice are about $10 an hour. Graduates earn about $20 an hour.

Jobs are easy to find, said Hyatt.

"There's a shortage of skilled labor," he said, especially in plumbing.

Part of the problem, Hyatt said, is the stereotype of construction workers as Joe Six-Packs.

"Parents, guidance counselors, everybody wants their kids to go to college. College is great, but some people aren't college material. I don't know why anyone wouldn't want to be a plumber," he said.

Cooper is one of four women in the program. Her work life started with stints in traditionally female occupations such as secretary, waitress or sales clerk. Later, she spent 15 years coaching gymnastics and had her own studio in Texas before going into hotel management.

But her first choice, formed in childhood, always had been welding. Her dad had been a welder, and she'd spend hours after school and on weekends helping out.

In high school, however, she learned that girls in Ferron, Utah, could take only home economics, not shop. When she applied years ago for an apprentice job as a welder, she was told she could work in the office.

So when she started the program here, she expected some rough times. She would be working on a construction site and she'd be the only woman there.

She expected, at the least, skepticism.

"My co-workers are very supportive. I was very surprised," she said. "There's no excuse anymore that it's a man's world. The opportunity is there."

- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or gibson@sptimes.com.

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