Labor

Judges’ work cut out for them at regional Insulators competition

By JIM HEDEMARK
Special to The Stand

SPOKANE — “There’s a lot of me in there,” said Megan Gibb, just minutes after the 25th hour of competition ended at the Insulators’ 2018 Union Western Conference Master Apprentice Competition (MAC) last month. “I worked until the last minute, so I really didn’t have any time to stand back and appreciate what I’ve accomplished.”

As to being the first woman to compete in the Western Conference, Megan said she felt a little added pressure, but the camaraderie and competition was what she’ll remember most about the event.

Speaking with Megan and her Apprenticeship Coordinator Dave Gamble behind his Oregon-plated truck in the parking lot outside of the MAC site, Spokane Community College Apprentice and Journeyman Training Center, felt like interviewing an Olympic Freestyle Skier and her coach just after her medal round effort. Unlike the Olympics, the competitors would wait a couple hours, not minutes, to learn who would claim the Western Conference mechanical insulators’ 2018 crown.

As we spoke, the judges from the host union, Heat & Frost Insulators Local 82 in Spokane, were just steps away inside the training center scoring the work of apprentices representing nine western states (see the roster below).

The judges had their work cut out for them. Literally. Competitors had measured and cut foam under-insulation, folded and formed aluminum casing, prepped and sealed PVC piping, and much more.

But as the line goes in the movie, Highlander: “There can be only one.” The 2018 Western Conference Master Apprentice Competition Champion is Andrew Kuykendall of Local 135 Las Vegas, Nevada.

“Every one of the projects would be considered ‘highly sell-able’ in our industry,” said Andrew Richman, Apprentice Instructor for Local 82. “One longtime coordinator told me that this first competition held in Spokane was the first time that all competing apprentices completed their projects, included the first female competitor, and was the toughest assignment for the judges to date.”

Mechanical Insulators, like most unions in the building trades, are a big brotherhood with a growing sisterhood. There are also many dads and granddads in the family. Perhaps especially in the Insulators’ Union, sons and grandsons take up the trade, often working within the same companies, for each other’s businesses and as members of the same union. This has been key to the continuation of the profession throughout its history.

Another factor contributing to growth in the Insulators industry is the focus on green projects. One coordinator became rather animated when talking about unfortunate decisions on some projects that cut insulation work as the time runs out and budgets run short. To paraphrase, “For all today’s talk about smart grids, smart cars, and smart buildings; ‘pennywise and pound foolish’ needs to become a thing of the past. What we really insulate in is savings and safety. What we insulate out is long-term cost to our fellow taxpayers.”

The competition attendees said that Insulators are the best kept secret profession in the building trades. Their work is, well, often insulated from the public’s eye on any given project. The skills have been quietly passed down between generations for centuries.

“Most people think we work with the pink stuff behind the wall,” was a common refrain at the competition. “Be sure to emphasize ‘mechanical insulator’ when you write about us.”

Observing the competition from both the training room where the competition took place as well as from the coordinators’ conference room, it became clear that the competing apprentices were too busy completing their projects to take notice that soon enough, they will be sitting in the coordinators’ chairs, planning for and protecting the next generation of Insulator Apprentices.

I find a lot of inspiration in the past, present and future of union mechanical insulation. The secret of their critical work, proud tradition, and bright future is not safe with me.