More than two dozen people from underserved populations have entered the pipe trades in the last three years through a unique partnership between Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 562, the Mechanical Contractors Association of Eastern Missouri (MCA EMO), and the Plumbing Industry Council (PIC). Now, the CHAMPIONS Initiative is preparing to launch a fourth cohort of women and minorities who will devote their summer to kick-starting an exciting new career through intensive training, formal mentorship, and job placement as a pre-apprentice with union mechanical and plumbing contractors.
CHAMPIONS – short for Creating Hometown Advantages through Minority Participation in Our Neighborhoods – launched in 2020 as an effort to diversify the skilled labor force in St. Louis. Recognizing the need for greater inclusivity in construction, labor and management came together and created a concrete road map to increasing diversity in jobs historically unavailable to women and minorities. Though the process for entrance is highly competitive, candidates are not required to have previous work experience in the trades, but simply a strong desire to make it a lifelong career, which is just one of several unique attributes of the initiative.
“It is a huge part of making our city more equitable for women and people of color,” said Megan Evergreen, a member of the first CHAMPIONS cohort, who is now a Local 562 apprentice working at Murphy Company.
“The program is an innovative response to the desperate need for new blood in light of an aging workforce,” said Steve Faust of icon Mechanical, who helped develop the program.
“Having new apprentices all the time is so important, and it’s so important that they get in here now so we have that transfer of information from the senior workforce to the newer generation coming into the field,” Faust said in a new video spotlighting the CHAMPIONS Initiative.
The six-week training period at the core of the CHAMPIONS Initiative uses a dual approach. Participants spend the bulk of their time in full-time technical training in the plumbing, pipefitting and mechanical trades. They also participate in weekly classes focused on personal and professional development such as financial literacy, communications, and teamwork, all aimed at helping them build a long-term career. In addition, each CHAMPIONS participant receives mentorship from a career tradesperson.
The program aims to address common barriers to moving into a new career by providing compensation through living stipends and transportation assistance to all participants during the initial six-weeks of intensive training. Upon successful completion of the six-week kickoff, participants officially graduate to pre-apprentice status and are hired on by participating mechanical and plumbing contractors of MCA EMO and/or PIC. They continue to receive mentorship and attend peer group meetings while earning an hourly wage and qualifying for Local 562 benefits such as retirement savings and health care. Following a year in the program, successful pre-apprentices are invited to officially begin their journey as a skilled pipefitter or plumber with a formal invitation into the Local 562 Apprenticeship Program.
Kurt Voss, MCA board member and vice president of engineering at Integrated Facility Services, said the program is a great way to introduce fresh perspectives on the trades.
“It helps us as the contractors to bring in new personnel and sometimes those that might think a little bit differently than those that have always been in the industry,” Voss said.
This week, current and past participants, mentors, and management will meet for dinner and a discussion on how to continuously improve and update program design and delivery. Labor and management are also working on a toolkit that other industry partners and unions can use to build their own programs, with estimated release later this summer.
Cohort 4 will launch in mid-June at the state-of-the-art LU562 Training Center, with successful participants set for pre-apprenticeship placement with participating contractors in early August. Its graduates will join about 30 CHAMPIONS participants who have entered the apprenticeship pipeline since the first cohort in 2020.
The Mechanical Contractors Association of Eastern Missouri, the Plumbing Industry Council, and the Plumbers and Pipefitters LU 562 came together to launch the Champions Initiative in order to strengthen the St. Louis construction workforce through direct investment in the underrepresented local community.
The Initiative provides long-term mentorship and professional development support – inspiring interest, minimizing common barriers to success, and offering a clear pathway to an exceptional career in the pipe trades.