Montana State University-Northern will soon be offering a one-of-a-kind program in the state - an associate degree tied to a plumber's apprenticeship.
Greg Kegel, dean of the College of Technical Sciences at Northern, said the university intends to have the program available next fall.
"We'd like to have 20 kids a year. Where we're going to be with that I have no idea, but I've heard lots of interest," Kegel said.
The Montana Board of Regents approved the program by a unanimous vote at its meeting in Bozeman in November.
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry requires that plumbers serve a five-year apprenticeship with a master plumber. The apprenticeship includes a schedule of required classes, but no Montana school has offered the classes.
The nearest school that offered the required courses was North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.
Once Northern's program is certified by Labor and Industry, it will count toward two years of the required five-year apprenticeship.
Master plumber Bob Nault, owner of Nault Plumbing, said there was broad support for the program at the regents meeting.
"I feel this is just going to be the beginning of an excellent trade program at MSU-Northern," he said.
Nault helped design the program, and said he will donate his time to get it operating the first year.
MSU-Northern Chancellor Alex Capdeville said the plumbing program fits the mission of Northern's College of Technical Sciences.
"It's training people for jobs in Montana. Hopefully they'll stay in Montana," he said.
Once students complete the two years of classes, they can take classes required in the remaining three years of the apprenticeship as correspondence courses through Northern, he said. Now many of them take those correspondence courses through the North Dakota school.
If apprentices didn't want to attend classes at Northern, they also could take the first two years of courses as correspondence courses, Kegel said.
He said the program will have one instructor for the first year. He said Nault's may donate his time to fill that position for a year.
If the program fills up as he expects it to, a second instructor would be hired for the second year of the program, and someone also would have to take over Nault's classes.
"That would be a great problem to have," Kegel added.
Some companies have offered to donate equipment for the program and are contacting other companies about donating larger equipment like furnaces.
Eventually, Northern will probably expand to include more heating and air conditioning instruction, and could start programs for electricians and certification in construction, he said.
"The natural evolution of the program would be to get into an electrician's program," he said.
Nault said he also hopes the state plumbing tests will eventually be offered here.