The Nation’s Best Plumbing & HVAC Apprentices

The 2016 Plumbing & HVAC Apprentice contests help build the next generation of workers. Meet some of this year’s contestants. 

Nearly 25 years ago, a gentleman named James Kenney III recognized the need to showcase the talents of plumbers in training and set the stage for their future in the industry. This October, the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors — National Association (PHCC) Educational Foundation will host the stage for the largest pool of contestants for the National Plumbing & HVAC apprentice contests to date, held on Wednesday, Oct. 19 through Friday, Oct. 21 at the Marriott Rivercenter in San Antonio, Texas. 

In the early 90s, following Kenney’s involvement with SkillsUSA, he worked with PHCC to develop the first plumbing apprentice contest for the association. The idea was to offer apprentices a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skills on a national stage. 

Within a couple of years, Frank Maddalon of F.R. Maddalon, Trenton, New Jersey got involved, and together they worked to promote the event during PHCC CONNECT. “By the third year, we had six plumbing apprentices participating,”  recalls Maddalon. “We even tried to get HVAC apprentices involved, but there wasn’t much interest with only two participants.” 

With the concept still new, Maddalon recalls spending a lot of time making phone calls to get sponsors and vendors, and gathering materials and prizes for the participants. 

“We got a lot of support all across the country,” says Maddalon. “The biggest challenge, however, was working on logistics.” 

Maddalon recalls just how time-consuming it was each year to set up the workstations and then to have to break them down again after the show. “We would have to work with local chapters to get the materials and logistics all right for each show. And once it was all over, we would break down the platforms and donate them back to the schools for the apprentices to work with.” 

Much has changed since then. Today, the contests not only draw in more contestants, but there is no longer the need to set up and break down workstations. With two sets of permanent workstations — one in Chicago and one in Virginia Beach  — they are shipped out based on where the show is held. 

“We’ve always had and continue to have, support from all of our affiliates,” says Maddalon, “but now there is also a great team in place to handle logistics and everything else that goes along with putting together a great contest.” 

More than 138,000 new technicians will be needed by 2022. Developing future leaders and sustaining our industry at a time when there is a lack of qualified laborers is an important task, and PHCC’s Educational Foundation is taking the reins. 

“We are so excited about this year’s Plumbing & HVAC Apprenticeship Contests,” says Merry Beth Hall, assistant vice president of workforce development at PHCC’s Educational Foundation. “Programs like these are a great way to develop the type of skilled workers our industry needs.” 

This year, there are a total of 20 plumbing and 12 HVAC apprentices participating. The National HVAC Apprentice Contest made its way back on the scene four years ago. 

“Our team worked together to create a challenging contest for third to fifth year apprentices,” says Hall. 

The HVAC contest has six events, which will require contestants to: 

  • Demonstrate proper brazing techniques 
  • Perform a pressure test and leak test, and pull a vacuum on a system
  • Demonstrate proper recovery procedures
  • Take a full set of readings on a functioning package unit and measure airflow, static pressure, and capacity from the package unit 
  • Perform a hands-on diagnostic and repair on a package unit 
  • Take a written test evaluating HVAC knowledge 

Each contestant needs to complete all six events over a two-day period. They will be judged on accuracy of measurement, neatness, quality of workmanship, accuracy of plan interpretation, written instruction, and finally, a pressure test.

“Building the HVAC contest has been a monumental task,” explains Hall. “Our contest committee — all volunteers — has undertaken the huge task of reaching out to industry partners for support, such as tools, materials, accessories and prizes. We have been grateful for support from the United Association in the local areas where we’ve held the contest in recent years as well as some local technical schools.” 

This year, the PHCC Educational Foundation is working with St. Philip’s College in San Antonio. It is providing classroom and laboratory space for the brazing, refrigerant recovery and knowledge test portions of the contest. And UA Local 142 in San Antonio is also helping by providing judges and other assistance as needed during the event. 

“We are always grateful for the local support we receive for the national contest. We can’t make it happen without local help,” adds Hall. 

  • The plumbing contest also will have a series of tasks, which will require contestants to: 
  • Install a basic three-piece bathroom: toilet, sink and shower
  • Install water and drain, waste and vent lines 
  • Determine rough-in locations
  • Establish grade lines for installing plumbing
  • Install vents and cleanouts 
  • Rough-in waste and vent lines 
  • Secure horizontal and vertical lines of pipe to wood and metal surfaces 

Each student is sponsored by a manufacturer or other industry partner that contributes toward the apprentice’s participation expenses. 

“There are many ways for our industry partners to become involved in our contests,” says Hall. “From sponsoring contestants to volunteering to donating materials and prizes. We try to find ways for everyone to become involved at some level.”

Last year, more than 50 companies participated in the apprentice contests in some way. Hall expects that number to be even larger this year. 

“Who doesn’t want to support the future of our industry?” she asks. 

In addition to the competition, all contestants have the opportunity to attend special educational seminars at CONNECT, complete with peer-to-peer networking and exposure to the latest technologies and products available.

Visitors to CONNECT’s Product and Technology Showcase can view the final phases of both contests as they walk the show floor and learn the winners the next day. These contests are exciting and fun to watch each year, and you won’t want to miss them. 

“It was absolutely fantastic back in the early 90s,” says Maddalon, “but we never perceived it to be this great so many years later.”

Maddalon attributes the success of the contests to PHCC’s dedication and commitment to promoting education in the industry. 

For those who are interested and haven’t taken the step yet, Hall recommends you stick your toe in the water. “Reach out to us. We’re always ready to welcome new help at any level. We always need volunteers to assist us with judging the contest (we’ll be in Milwaukee in 2017 and Albuquerque in 2018). We need materials, prizes for contest winners and items for goody bags each year. We need sponsorship funds to offset the costs of getting the apprentices to the competition. Every donation — time, talent or treasure — helps us make the competition happen and is greatly appreciated. And let’s not forget: we always need the best apprentices for the competition!”

Speaking of the best apprentices, this year’s 12 top HVAC apprentices and 20 top plumbing apprentices come from all over the country. Many are winners of state contests; some represent their UA locals; and others represent their local programs as top students. 

We had the opportunity to talk to a few of the contestants, and the common traits they all share include determination, resiliency, ambition and pride. They’re proud to be part of a great industry and organization that allows them to shine and excel. Read about the ten

contestants we spoke to and make sure to stop by and see everyone’s work at CONNECT 2016. 

HVAC Contestant Profiles

Jasen O’Brien, 4th year Kuenster Heating & Air, Kalona, Iowa 

Jasen O’Brien got his start in the industry after accepting an offer to be a driver for a plumbing service tech shortly after his 18th birthday.

“The rest is history,” he says. Since then, he’s been focused on technical service in the HVAC trade. He’s been in the industry for ten years, and hopes to take back and share what he learns during the contest with other installation/service providers in his class.  has been preparing for the contest by practicing his installation techniques. “What’s the point of doing a contest if you don’t know how to install properly?” he asks. 

Fun fact: Though he regretfully quit high school, O’Brien came back strong to earn his GED and work toward his education in the HVAC industry. 

What would you tell others who are considering participating in the future? “Give it a try; what’s the worst that can happen?” 

Casey Reed, 5th year Merryman-Farr, Chapel Hill, Tennessee.

Casey Reed got his start as a driver, moved on to warehouse clerk and eventually saw the value in learning a trade. “Our company was looking for a maintenance tech/apprentice, so I moved into the service department,” recalls Reed. He completed fours years of HVAC school at the local Associated Builders and Contractors apprenticeship program and decided to jump at the opportunity of competing in the 2016 apprentice contest. “I hope to meet new people and see new techniques from other parts of the country,” says Reed. He’s been studying his old school books in preparation and getting as much on-the-job training he can. “Service is kind of a learn-on-the-fly trade most of the time, so that is some of the best preparation you can get.” 

Fun fact: His first time to ever fly on a plane will be when he goes to San Antonio for the contest.

What would you tell others who are considering participating in the future? “It’s a good opportunity to challenge yourself to work at a high standard.” 

RJ Parker, 3rd year Nugent & Sons, Great Falls, Virginia 

RJ Parker got his start in the HVAC industry through hometown connections, working for a small, family-owned business. “They helped me learn the industry from a green parts runner to the service technician I am today,” says Parker. At the recommendation of his boss, Parker decided to participate in this year’s contest. “I am excited to meet other industry professionals and to measure my skills and understanding against the best HVAC minds.” At the end of the contest, he hopes to have accomplished a better view of where he stands in the spectrum of the industry nationwide. “Winning is the obvious goal,” says Parker, “but I am looking to build confidence in my own abilities and absorb new material and strategy more than I am looking to accumulate hardware.”

In preparation for the contest, Parker makes a concerted effort to pay attention to the details of everyday work and review textbooks.

“There is more than one way to accomplish a task, and I am always looking for the most efficient mode of completion.” 

Fun fact: He played baseball in college. 

What would you tell others who are considering participating in the future? “If you have the opportunity to compete, do so because it can only help!” 

Plumbing Contestant Profiles

Antonio Diaz, 3rd year Michael & Son, Washington, D.C.

Antonio Diaz was introduced to the plumbing industry through a friend. “He thought I would be a good fit for a service position at a small plumbing company that he worked at,” says Diaz. He signed up for the contest this year to measure his skills and to see how he stacks up against his peers. Diaz says he’s not had any extra practice for the competition, but having honed his skills six days a week for the last four plus years, he’s hoping to represent his company well. “I want to show that if you’re determined to be great, you will be.” 

Fun fact: Before becoming a plumber, he worked at The Home Depot and Macy’s while taking college courses. 

What would you tell others who are considering participating in the future? “If you have the opportunity to compete and test yourself, you should.” 

Valentin Bedolla, 4th year R.E.C. Industries, San Antonio, Texas

Valentin Bedolla has been involved in the plumbing industry for five years, four of which have been as an apprentice. “I decided to participate in the contest because I wanted to challenge myself to see how much I have learned,” says Bedolla. He says his work experience, along with school, these past few years has prepared him. “I hope that my work will speak for itself,” says Bedolla. Despite being nervous about the hands-on approach, he says he knows to remain calm and apply his working knowledge. “I want to show that plumbing school really does pay off, and that a lot of apprentices take great pride in plumbing perfection; all it takes is practice!” 

Fun fact: Bedolla was first in his family to pursue a degree and to successfully complete four years of plumbing school. 

What would you tell others who are considering participating in the future? “Go challenge yourself, you have nothing to lose! Great opportunities like this don’t come around too often, and it’ll help you to strive to become a better plumber.” 

Thomas Benson, 1st year Worth and Company, North Plainfield, New Jersey

Thomas Benson attended the HoHoKus School of Trade for a year and through its job placement program he began his apprenticeship with his current employer. “I signed up for the contest because I thought it is a great opportunity to showcase the skills I’ve learned so far,” said Benson. In preparation for the contest, Benson has been working with the material as much as possible, and he’s also put an emphasis on studying blueprints. “I hope to represent the school I attended and the company I work for well.”

Fun fact: He’s a foot taller than both his mother and father. 

What would you tell others who are considering participating in the future? “You should definitely go for it; it’s a great experience!” 

Jorge Martinez, 3rd year Mauerhan Plumbing, Los Angeles, California 

Jorge Martinez was in search of a recognized, established plumbing trade school when he found PHCC of Los Angeles. Since then, everything else has fallen into place, career-wise. “Preparing for this contest has been challenging in itself,” says Martinez. “My work schedule in combination with school leaves me with little time with my family. So one day out of the week is dedicated to preparing.” Martinez hopes to take this opportunity to expand his skills, and to challenge himself. “Giving my kids this example is a major goal for me. I want them to be productive and successful citizens of this great nation that gives us these amazing opportunities.” 

Fun fact: He was employed with the U.S. Marshals. 

What would you tell others who are considering participating in the future? “Anyone with plumbing experience should take the challenge of competition at least once.” 

Isaac Bliek, 3rd year Plumbing Design & Installation, Rapid City, North Dakota

Isaac Bliek says he had zero experience as a plumber before getting into the industry. In fact, his former position was a Security Forces Leader (MP) in the U.S.A.F. “Being a combat vet, there is very little that a person can do to achieve excellence. I have been told I will never work again. Not only am I working now, I am also achieving excellence in everything that I do,” says Bliek. His strategy for preparing for the contest involves math, bacon, and hours of Mario Brothers. “I have always been very competitive, and I enjoy challenges.” 

Fun fact: He loves to joke around and is rarely serious. 

What would you tell others who are considering participating in the future? “If you don’t want it, you will never get it.” 

Trevor Tuggle, 4th year Aqua Plumbing, Las Vegas, Nevada

Trevor Tuggle recalls his first experience with the plumbing industry at the age of 14. His parents have owned a plumbing company for many years, and his first job was spreading and installing trim on tract homes. “Personal development is important to me. If you don’t change, you don’t grow,” says Tuggle. He won the local PHCC competition in Las Vegas and is happy to have the opportunity to compete on a national level. “I hope to see improvement from my last performance. I felt I did well in the last competition, and seeing that I have grown since then, I hope that is reflected in my results.” 

Fun fact: Tuggle plays soccer and loves to kick the ball around and knock some people down. 

What would you tell others who are considering participating in the future? “Absolutely do it! Competitions are fun and the ultimate test of competency.”  

Conor White, 5th year John J. Maurer Inc., Bourne, Massachusetts 

Conor White attended Upper Cape Regional Vocational High School in Bourne Massachusetts, before graduating top of his class in 2011. As a junior, Conor went on the co-op program and worked with John J Maurer Inc., where he is still employed today. “I thoroughly enjoy competition and find nothing more exciting,” says White. “When my employer mentioned the competition, I jumped at the chance.”

White hopes to meet new peers from around the country to learn from them and add to his own knowledge base. “I am fortunate to work with some very talented mechanics who insist on quality workmanship,” he adds. “I am hoping that these learning experiences will show through.” 

Fun fact: He enjoys playing the guitar. 

What would you tell others who are considering participating in the future? “Experiences like this come up seldom, so take advantage of them and broaden your horizons whenever you get the opportunity.”

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