By Tim Leeds
Montana State University-Northern is looking into creating a program that could help Montana students, help Montana plumbers and help the Montana economy.
"It's a win for us, a win for the college and a win for the state," said Bob Nault of Nault Plumbing & Heating Inc.
Nault has been helping to plan a curriculum at the university's College of Technical Sciences that could be used for part of the academic requirement for plumbing apprenticeships.
To become a licensed plumber in the state, the Montana Department of Labor requires people to enter a five-year apprenticeship with a master plumber. The program includes a schedule of required classes each year, but no Montana institution offers approved classes, Nault said.
The classes required include math and blueprint reading.
The nearest school offering plumbing courses approved by the Department of Labor is the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, he said. Most apprentices take the classes through a correspondence course at the college, then are tested by the state on the material. If they pass, the apprentices move on to the next course.
Nault said there were 183 plumber apprentices in Montana taking classes through the Wahpeton college at the end of last year.
Greg Kegel, dean of the College of Technical Sciences, said the university hopes to be ready to submit the program to the Board of Regents for approval this spring. Classes in the program could be offered by the 2004-2005 school year, he said.
Chancellor Alex Capdeville said the program will be good for the university and for the state.
"I think there's a need for the program. The indication is there is a strong need, a strong desire," he said. "Hopefully we can capture that audience in Montana.
"I think it's a program that will grow here," Capdeville added.
Offering the courses in Montana would keep the tuition and class expenses in the state, and increase the likelihood of the plumbers staying in Montana once they become journeymen, Nault said. Many who go to school and become apprentices in North Dakota stay there, he added.
"We're getting a few of them, but we'd like to have more," he said.
Taking the required classes before starting an apprenticeship would benefit both the apprentices and the plumbers who are training them, Nault said.
Apprentices are generally paid a percentage of a journeyman's wage, he said. People in the first year of their apprenticeship are paid 50 percent, in the second year 60 percent, the third year 70 percent, the fourth year 80 percent and the fifth year 90 percent.
Students who have completed one year of a program certified by the state would be paid 60 percent of a journeyman's wages, and would only have to complete four years of apprenticeship, Nault said. Students who completed two years of classes would receive 70 percent of the journeyman's wages and only have to complete three years.
And the plumbers receive a more capable apprentice, he added.
"These kids hit the ground running and are ready to work for us," Nault said.
Kegel said the program will initially be offered as a correspondence course or through Northern's distance learning programs.
The university plans to eventually offer it as a program on campus, but will have to continue developing that, he said.
Nault said there is a great demand for such an on-campus program. The college in Wahpeton can only enroll 25 students per semester due to lack of instructors, he said, and there's a waiting list of people who want to get in.
Wahpeton attracts more than just North Dakota and Montana students, Kegel said. People from all over the country enroll in the college's plumbing curriculum, he said.
"We'd like to do that too," he added.
Northern could eventually start offering programs in other areas, perhaps for electricians or for certification in construction, Kegel said.
"We've got the facilities, got the space, got the expertise up here to do these things," he said. "There's lots of talk of economic development in Montana. Part of that is responding to the need. This is responding to that need."