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OE324 Apprentices lead the way

Matt Gibson clearly remembers the day last fall Tony D’Ascenzo, one of the owners of Guardian Plumbing and Heating called him into a private meeting.  Gibson had worked his way up at Guardian over 8 years, and was just completing his Apprenticeship at the Operating Engineers 324 Stationary Education Center in Detroit.  The request left him slightly concerned.  “I knew I didn’t do anything wrong, but I had no idea what it was about.”

D’Ascenzo pulled him into a conference room and closed the door.  “He said I wanted to let you know you won Apprentice of the Year,” Gibson recalls.  There was some celebration. “I was honored, surprised, grateful.”  But most of all, he says he felt ‘humbled.’

When Matt Gibson won the Manufacturing Apprentice of the Year from the Michigan Apprenticeship Steering Committee, Inc (MASCI) in December, it was just the latest in an amazing line of recognition that have come OE324 apprentices way in the last few years.

Since December of 2015, OE324 Apprenticeship programs have produced 4 Apprentice of the Year winners, including 3 MASCI winners, an Upper Peninsula Construction Council (UPCC) winner, several AGC winners, and several other finalists.  OE324 Crane Operator Joe Prusi was a finalist twice before winning the UPCC award last March.  “I was honored each time I was I was a finalist,” says Prusi. “But I was shocked when I won, really surprised.”

“It’s good to know that there’s people that appreciate the apprenticeship programs and the trades, and we need to continue to build a stronger skilled trades workforce and support the quality training programs, like OE324’s, that attract them.”

OE324 members Corey Chandler and Krystle Schnell share that same sense of honor, and belief in the value of apprenticeships.  Each won both the AGC and MASCI Apprentice of the Year award, Chandler in 2017 and Schnell in 2015. “It’s essential,” says Chandler of the apprenticeship program. “I wasn’t raised around (heavy equipment), and people who haven’t been around it need it – it’s a must.  You learn about the equipment, the industry, atmosphere.  I think it’s imperative.”

Each took a different path and have a different story, but share the common bond of being Graduated Apprentices who were recognized for excellence in their work.

Krystle Schnell

Schnell admits heavy equipment operation wasn’t something she had considered when her now-husband and her began discussing next steps after losing her job when a factory closed.  “We were talking about what next, and driving past a construction site.  I saw the equipment and said ‘I want to run’ those – mostly to end the conversation!” But back at home, She did a bit of research and liked what she saw in a career as an Operating Engineer. “I looked at these schools where you pay to learn. But when I found OE324, I loved the concept of Earn While You Learn.”

Schnell took a two week pre-apprenticeship course, then went through the application process.  When she was accepted into the program, she found it challenging, but hung tough.  Eventually it was on a project at Palisades Power Plant where she felt at home.  “I found a mentor, who made me feel like I would cut it.”

It was that camaraderie that propelled her through the rest of her apprenticeship. “Individuals I’ve worked with made it stand out.  People who want to see you succeed.”

This year, Schnell is a full-time Instructor at the OE324 JATF, hoping to pay it forward to new apprentices coming through the program. “I enjoyed my apprenticeship and learned a ton, and appreciated the bond.  It’s nice to think maybe I could do that for somebody else.”

Corey Chandler

Chandler found the Operating Engineers by happy accident as well.  “I was in a program in Saginaw, aimed at helping women and minorities find new opportunities.”  Chandler, who was relatively unfamiliar with Construction, grabbed the chance. “We were supposed to take a field trip somewhere else, but it was cancelled, so we wound up going to the training site in Howell.”

Given the chance to try running equipment, he was hooked.  “I was excited right away, I knew this was for me.”  After completing his pre-apprenticeship, Chandler applied and joined the ranks of OE324 apprentices.  For him, like Krystle, it was all about the connections he made.”

“I learned so much from great instructors like Pat, Zeke, Scott Smith,” says Chandler  “It’s a career, not a job.”

Since graduating in 2017, he has spent most of his time running excavators and dozers.  But he does not feel his learning is over. “A journeyman told me ‘The day you think you know it all, hang up your keys,’ and I think that’s true,” he says.  “It’s all about ‘how bad do you want it.’ I appreciate everything, and I’m looking forward to going down to the school in the next couple weeks to get more experience.”

Joe Prusi

Outside Marquette, Prusi was looking for a new opportunity after leaving the sawmill he’d worked at for over a decade. His father was encouraging a job with the Operating Engineers, and joining the brotherhood of a union.  Prusi stopped in the OE324 office and to get information about applying.  After the prerequisite application and tests, Prusi headed down to Howell.

“When I got in, I thought loader, dozer, dirt work.  But once I got down here I saw the cranes – that was what I wanted to do.  When John Hartwell came up, he said ‘I put you in the hoisting side,’ and I couldn’t have been happier.

Over the course of his apprenticeship, Prusi, like the others, credits the assistance he got from journeyman on the job site. “I had guys who were happy to help me out, good guys who weren’t afraid to share their knowledge and give me seat time.”

And while Joe admits his notoriety has led to some good-natured ribbing on the job site, it is “the camaraderie and knowledge” he enjoys the most. “They understand it’s a circle – my success is our success.  I’m their retirement, and one day someone will be mine.  Helps me look forward to the next guys coming up and being able to help them.”

Matt Gibson

When Gibson joined the Army Reserves, he became a pump station operator and found he enjoyed it.  So while working for Guardian Plumbing and Heating, he began to take classes at the OE324 Stationary Career Center to study as a Stationary Engineer apprentice. As an active reservist, he spent a year in Korea in service, prolonging his apprenticeship.

Additionally, the Department of Labor revised the regulations for hours and classroom time required for Registered Apprenticeship. What was created was a new US Department of Labor capstone project specifically designed for Gibson’s unique set of skills.

“The DoL set new requirements, including attendance and all new class sets.” Gibson continued on, including mandatory monthly meetings with instructors to review progress.  “The refrigeration and boiler classes were the most helpful,” says Gibson, “as well as electrical troubleshooting. Instructor Lorenzo Brown helped me a lot as I went through the program.”

When Gibson got the surprise call, he had graduated and moved up to his current role in pump and tech services. “We do mechanical work – I do a lot in the Ren Cen for preventative maintenance, and go between DTE substations.”

“Matt is the epitome of what any apprentice should be. He was always eager to help anyone in need and was the first person to approach if you needed help. We couldn’t have asked for a better apprentice,” said Jim Arini, OE324 Stationary Training Director.

Each of the winners were chosen from the thousands of apprentices currently learning about their careers in the Skilled Trades in Michigan. “Every year, we train many of the men and women who get top-notch careers and keep our state running, and the individual accomplishments of (these apprentices) stand out as some of the best,” says Apprenticeship Coordinator John Hartwell.

“We are proud to have many apprentices who could be award winners every year,” says Operating Engineers 324 Business Manager Doug Stockwell.  “We are proud of what they accomplish as apprentices, but even more so of the great work they do throughout Michigan on the job sites, in their communities and with their families.”