Of Unions, Benefits and Steamfitters

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This post is in collaboration with Steamfitters Local 449.

Welder dressed in orange working on a huge, green pipe. Text reads, "Benefits of Unions: Pension, Healthcare, Truly Equal Pay, Opportunity for career and salary growth. Steamfitters449 on femmefrugality.com"

I’m a huge proponent of education. Sometimes that means college.

Sometimes that means trade school.

We need to remember that one is not superior to the other. In fact, if you’re measuring ROI over the course of your career, there’s a decent argument for trade school being the smarter decision.


Career Training Without the Student Loans via Steamfitters Local 449

Steamfitters Local 449 is a union here in the Pittsburgh region representing those who make, install and service piping systems. This includes occupations such as welders and your HVAC-R service person.

How do you learn these skills?

Through free career training.

Steamfitters Local 449 works with the United Association and the Mechanical Contractors Association to provide this free education at its training center in Harmony, PA.

After that union members pay a marginal amount into the apprenticeship fund for each hour they work, which continues the cycle of free education.

This frees you to use the money you’re bringing in while you’re training to do things like live in safe housing, afford groceries and plan for your financial future–things that are much harder to do if you’re spending your younger working years burdened by student loans.

Getting Paid to Learn

The first step in the training process will be uncompensated. But if you can make it through that initial training, the rewards are worth it.

The initial training for those interested in building trades is an 18-week course that runs in the daytime teaching you how to weld. If you’re more interested in the HVAC-R side of things, your initial training will only be 8 weeks.

If you complete this step successfully, you’ll be taken on as an apprentice. Apprentices currently start at $18.25/hour plus health benefits. If you make it through that first, probationary year, you’ll be eligible for a pay bump of  10% and gain access to Steamfitters’ retirement vehicles.

Keep doing well and you’ll continue to earn those 10% pay bumps each year throughout your five-year apprenticeship.

Live a Middle-Class Life

When you’ve completed your apprenticeship, you’ll start earning journeyman’s pay. That’s currently $41/hour or $82,000/year if you work fifty 40-hour work weeks. Nick Kappas, Director of Marketing at Steamfitters Local 449, notes that after you add in benefits like health insurance and access to retirement vehicles, the effective hourly pay jumps to about $65/hour.

Either way, that’s enough to live a solidly middle-class lifestyle in the Pittsburgh region. And you won’t have to worry about your first ten years of pay going to service student loan debt.

If you’d like to make even more money, journeyman status isn’t the end of the line. Steamfitters Local 449 offers further training, enabling you to become a working foreman, general foreman, area foreman, superintendent, diagnostician, estimator, scheduler and more.

Each of these positions include a pay bump up from the journeyman status, allow you to bring in an even higher income.

How the heck does a pension work?

A major benefit to union positions is access to a pension. Pensions are defined benefit plans, which means you’ll easily be able to figure out how much money you’ll be pulling in once you’re retired.

For example, Kappas says that a journeyman currently working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year will pull in $160/month in retirement for each service year they complete.

If you decided to stay at the journeyman position over a 35-year career, you’d be collecting $5,600/month–or $67,200/year–in retirement.

If you extend your career five more  years remaining at journeyman status, your retirement benefits would jump up to $76,800/year.

Closing the Pay Gap

Want to know who doesn’t face a gender pay gap?

Union members.

When everyone’s salary is public knowledge, it’s kind of hard to screw people over based on their gender.

Not only does joining a union eliminate your chance of facing a gender pay gap, but women are considered valuable assets at Steamfitters Local 449. Our cultural conditioning finally finds a place where it’s an asset as Kappas notes a phenomenon that Sam Paxson has previously put forth as a reason for hiring and retaining women:

“When we’re looking at trouble shooting, women tend to be a very valuable asset to us. They’re more patient and creative in finding solutions.”

He also says that these are assets that serve these union members at all levels, including welding and higher-paying administrative positions.

We as women also tend to be more concerned about long-term financial security, so we see the value that union benefits such as healthcare and defined benefit plans provide to us and our families–whether we’re working on a job site or doing the equally important work of managing the home front.

Learn More Live

If you’re curious and want to learn more about this career path, you’re in luck! Steamfitters Local 449 is holding its annual Expo up at its training center in Harmony.

It looks a long way from the city mileage wise, but as someone who has made every possible Pittsburgh commute over my adult life, I promise you that 279/79 is way easy to deal with as it has the least congestion, an HOV lane and is a legitimate highway where you can drive fast.

Yes, I’m looking at you, 51. You’re the reason I will never again willingly commute to the South Hills.

The Expo will be happening on May 23, 2019 from 12p to 8p, and will allow you to explore the field, ask questions of union reps and those currently working in the job position you’d eventually like to secure, and even learn through three continuing education courses.

If you, your child or your partner are interested in a career path that won’t end in dramatic debt you can never shake off, I’d highly encourage you to check it out. There is more than one way to secure upward economic mobility.

6 thoughts on “Of Unions, Benefits and Steamfitters

  1. Done by Forty

    Very cool case study, Brynne. I miss working in a union where, as you said, the transparency in salaries helped ensure workers weren’t getting unfairly compensated.

    And I love calling out that one type of work or career path is not superior to the other. Too often we college educated people fall into that messed up type of thinking.

  2. femmefrugality Post author

    Yes! And played a role in curbing the worst impulses of capitalism so that it could continue to exist in its current state.

  3. femmefrugality Post author

    Yes! I mean, that’s a pretty decent paycheck. And after the benefits? And no student loans?



    Great article and great way to get this to those who are curious… however I only see upsides mentioned why is there such a struggle to find people who want to make $65/hr with no overhead other than the time invested to learn?

    Also, from what I can surmise the steamfitters want those who are already in HVAC/Plumbing as opposed to someone just starting.. please correct me if I am wrong in that assumption? I’d really love to be in the field it is just so hard to find the right starting point.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      The Steamfitters are definitely recruiting new people without previous experience! That’s who the free training is for! And once you make it through that, you’ll make $18+/hour as an apprentice while you continue to learn.

      I guess if you wanted to find a con, the free initial training isn’t paid, so you’d have to have someone to stay with/rely on economically during that time period or have savings to get you by while you got your education.

      But I truly am of the opinion that the pros outweigh that one con, if you can conquer it. I think the reason these fields are looked down upon in America is because after WWII, we started tracking kids starting in middle school. There was the college track and the apprenticeship track. The “smarter” kids were usually put on the college track, with some of them being there just because of their family’s social position.

      (Nevermind that IQ tests used to put kids in gifted programs are detrimentally flawed, and that achieving good grades in school isn’t necessarily a measure of one’s intelligence.)

      This system is still baked into many schools today, even if the old belief system isn’t there–its structure is.

      So I think it ended up being a socioeconomic status symbol to have that four-year degree, even though going to a trade school and/or entering a unionized field might make just as much and sometimes way more financial sense than taking out student loans.

      We need people in these fields! If you’re interested in getting in touch with someone over at Steamfitters, let me know and I’ll put you in touch so you can learn more.


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