STEUBENVILLE - Concerned that scores of good-paying oil and gas industry jobs are going to out-of-state workers, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 495 is taking steps to make sure its members are trained in the downhill welding style the industry seems to prefer.
Keith Saltsman, business agent for Local 495, Steubenville-Cambridge, said it's been a gradual process.
"Right at this time, we do have probably 15 or 16 certified downhill welders," he said. "We have many certified welders, and we're getting them into downhill welding now."
The trades have been up in arms since the first drilling rigs arrived in the Upper Ohio Valley, questioning why, if the industry wants to hire local workers, so many of the people working at drilling sites are from out-of-state.
While downhill welding is "just a very minute part of the whole thing, very minute," Local 495's officers say getting union welders on oil and gas work sites is nonetheless significant.
"We're associated with the United Association of Plumbers & Pipefitters, which represents about 350,000 members across the country," said Ralph White, Local 495 business manager, financial secretary and treasurer. "We spend over $200 million a year on training, so it's not just downhill welding training. We've got the most highly qualified plumbers and pipefitters in the world."
White said downhill welding is not easy. "It's something we don't typically do, because we're into pressure piping, mostly to boiler specifications," he said. "Downhill welding is used primarily on pipelines."
It typically takes union welders eight to 12 weeks to complete the training. "You couldn't take anybody off the street and teach them to do it," he said, noting his members must have years of welding experience and multiple certifications under their belt even before they tackle the downhill style.
Before they can go on some industry work sites, he said they'll have to outfit themselves with a welding rig - a truck equipped with welding machines, acetylene torches, grinders and anything else they'll need to do the job. Two Local 495 welders assigned to a project near Flushing have already made the investment, which White says cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $60,000 to $80,000 per rig.
"But it's an expense these guys are willing to shoulder," he said, provided they know there will be continuity of work. "Nobody is going to spend that kind of money unless they know they'll have an opportunity to go to work, theyre waiting to see if an opportunity presents itself."
Before they're allowed to do any work for the oil and gas industry, Saltsman said the workers have to pass a test. "Every welder we have sent to them has passed the test, so we're making a good showing," he said. "Hopefully, more and more of these jobs will come our way."
Saltsman figures one reason for the shift in industry thinking is that union contractors are starting to get a foothold in the oil and gas business, and once they're on the work site they're turning to union trades people.
"The more they see how qualified our guys are, the more they're liking people in this area," Saltsman said.
"We know there's a lot of jobs that won't go union. But, with all the work that's here, even if we get 30 or 40 percent (it will be big). The big processing plants and compressor stations, that's what we're pushing to get in on - there's a lot of piping work and fabrication involved in those."
Saltsman said the hold-up, really, is getting guys outfitted with trucks and equipment.
"A lot of times they want (our welders) to have rigs and be ready to go out in the field," he said. 'We've never done it that way before. We're used to going out on a job and having all the tools there, waiting for us. It's a different ballgame, but we're slowly getting into it."
White said Local 495 has about 550 working members, almost half of them welders.