Ironworkers Test Skills

WHEELING – Using just their hands, feet and sheer muscle power, ironworkers scaled a 35-foot tall column of steel Saturday in Wheeling.

Held at Ironworkers Local 549 on Main Street, the William H. Sullivan Outstanding Apprenticeship Competition pitted ironworkers from Wheeling, Toledo, Cleveland, Canton, Youngstown and Pittsburgh against each other for a friendly showdown of knowledge, skill and might.

Keith Hughes, Local 549 business manager, said the annual event allows the ironworkers to test their skills in welding, burning, rebar, shooting elevations and more.

The top two winners – first place overall Nathan Strait, 26, of Pittsburgh Ironworkers Local 3, and second place overall Mike Wannaker of Youngstown Local 207 – will go on to an international competition in Toronto, Canada.

“It allows them to see what they’ve learned and for us to see how we taught them. It’s also kind of bragging rights,” Hughes said, noting they had to compete at the local level before coming to Wheeling.

Representing Wheeling Local 549 were Jeff Lilley, 21, of Cameron and Randy Gaus, 28, of Wheeling. Both participated in the column climb, making it look easy. Lilley won the column climb clocking in the fastest time of everyone in the competition.

Hughes said he once also competed as an apprentice.

“It’s a challenge,” he said.

Hughes noted Local 549, which has 450 members, supplies workers to contractors in need on a variety of projects. For example, union workers were used to erect the Oak Grove natural gas processing site in Marshall County – the location of the famous de-ethanizer superloads. Years ago, ironworkers erected the steel for the Federal Building in Wheeling. And just about any bridge in the region was made possible by ironworkers, he said.

By doing the apprenticeship program, workers can “earn while they learn,” Hughes said. To be eligible, one must pass an aptitude test and physical test and be at least 18 years old. Applications are taken every Monday at the local, situated at 2350 Main St. The tests are given in the summer and the apprenticeship program, which lasts two to three years depending on where one lives, starts in September and lasts until May. There are no classes in the summer.

“You’re guaranteed a job if the work is out there,” Hughes said.