St. Paul Plumbing Apprentice Proves Small is Mighty on the Jobsite

Michelle Chute carries the attitude that anything is possible, and she showcases that on the jobsite every day. Through a system of pulleys and levers, Chute, who stands at 4 ft.,11 inches, uses technology to her advantage and moves pipe, tools and metal weighing more than 600 lbs. as a plumbing apprentice with Local 34.

“People always comment on my size,” Chute said. “But when they see my work ethic, knowledge of tools and how I can lead a team, people learn quickly that my small stature doesn’t affect the quality of my work.”

Chute grew up in New York City and moved around the Midwest as a child.

“I got through high school, and I didn’t have guidance on what was out there for me,” Chute said.

Over the years she’s taken on many jobs: working at a gas station, waitressing, working at a floral shop and serving as a personal care assistant.

“Don’t get me wrong, I loved my jobs, but they weren’t careers,” Chute said. “I turned 30 and I began thinking about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. At the time, I barely had savings for retirement and my wages and benefits were low so that made it hard to save any money.”

At the recommendation of her husband, Chute began learning about careers in the construction trades.

“My husband is someone I’ve always admired, and he supported me when I was researching apprenticeship and the trades,” Chute said. “With his encouragement,

I passed the entry exams and asked questions to see which trade was right for me. I wanted to learn a skill set that was in-demand, so people would hire me right away.”

Finding a Fit with Local 34

“I never thought about college growing up,” Chute said. “It was too expensive and even after you graduate people carry their debt for years; that was not going to be me.”

To Chute’s surprise, Plumbers Local partners with St. Paul College, located near downtown Saint Paul, so apprentices work for five years to earn journey worker status but also graduate with an associate degree.

“I’ve had a great experience with the program. The hands-on training and site visits are the best parts of learning in the trades,” Chute said. “I am a fourth-year apprentice and next year I will be preparing to take the city and state licensing exams to graduate as a journey worker and be certified in my trade.”

A Day in the life of a Plumber 

Chute’s job as a plumber does not require her to carry a plunger around.

“I’ve never used a plunger at a worksite,” Chute said. “In fact, I’ve worked in schools, fire departments, and refineries. I’ve installed piping for showers or bathrooms, renovated outdated pipes, and installed and connected pipes underground and in ceilings.”

Chute recalled arriving on the first day of her apprenticeship and not knowing any of the tools in the room.

“I was intimidated, but I wasn’t alone,” Chute said. “That’s why it’s called apprenticeship training — you are there to learn.”

Now Chute knows every tool on the worksite. She even picked up some welding skills and works with a variety of metal piping.

“Pipes for water are different from waste pipes,” Chute said. “New technologies are advancing our trade all the time, for instance Victaulic pipes are carbon steel. They can be 8-10 inches in diameter and are often used for wastewater treatment or for fire protection.”

One of recent project that Chute worked on was installing pipes to transport natural gas into the culinary classrooms of Hastings Middle school. She also spent time at the Saint Paul Police training center installing “batteries,” a term used to describe rows of showers or toilets.

“I’ve even had some contractors call on me to come visit a worksite for plumbing jobs in small areas,” Chute said. “I can move just as much weight as the men on site using pulleys and other tools, but they cannot fit into the same spaces I can for detailed installs.”

Advice to Young People Considering the Trades

“For high school graduates, I would recommend apprenticeship as the best next step,” Chute said. “I know some young apprentices who are saving money by living at home and are already building a pension and making more money than their peers. Most trades start at $20+/hour and these young people are graduating as journey workers with enough money saved to buy a home.”

Chute is recommending the trades to her daughter, in hopes that she takes time to explore a career in Minnesota’s construction industry.

“Young people have such an advantage because they can call locals and start out as a summer helper, work in the business office or even just call business managers to tour training centers or learn about the trades,” Chute said. “Although I am biased to say the pipe trades are the best, all trades workers support each other. We understand we need to work together to finish projects in our community.”

Chute adds that apprenticeship is a pathway to a life-long career but that path will look different for everyone.

“Some people want to be on the ground working on installation for their career, others want to become a foreman and run teams and others want to become JATC educators or move to office jobs associated with the union to help run construction sites and recruit teams,” Chute said.  “Your attitude and work ethic determine where you will go in construction. If you arrive positive and ready to learn, you’re going to be successful.”

Union Teams and Union Benefits 

Joining a union also gives members access to benefits such as healthcare, eye care, dentistry, and mental health resources. Additional benefits such as retirement savings in the form of a pension and vacation/holidays are also included.

“It’s not something you think of when growing up — paying for healthcare — because most often you’re strong and healthy,” Chute said. “But you will need and use these benefits later in life. I don’t pay for doctor’s appointments and if I do, my prescription costs are covered by my union insurance.”

“My healthcare is so good my doctors use the same plan,” Chute added. “For eyecare we get free glasses, and they make sure our working glasses fit correctly and eye exams are done on the spot, whenever we need them.”

Chute’s advice to young people learning about workplace benefits: “Be sure to inquire about benefits. You put in your time with a company or union — what are they doing to support you and keep you and your family healthy?”

Interested in an apprenticeship with Local 34? 

Local 34 offers state-of-the-art training through our registered apprenticeship training program. The United Association has worked to develop one of the finest instructor training programs in the world. The association’s instructors are enrolled in, or graduates of, the five-year instructor training program.

These instructors, trained through the UA Instructor Training Program, are directed by the union’s training director, who in turn works at the direction of the J.A.C.

Once an apprentice has completed the five-year program, they join a skilled labor force that is ready to take on all projects that may come.

Local 34 is a hiring hall, which means that contractors can call in and request any number of skilled plumbers for the jobs they have. This gives the contractor confidence that they can meet their manpower requirements and gives Local 34 journeymen and apprentices a steady and hassle-free way to secure good employment.

The Construction Careers Foundation is the leading educational resource for construction apprenticeships in Minnesota. Visit ConstructionCareers.org for more information regarding construction trades, apprenticeships, and more.

Looking for guidance, or advice about a construction apprenticeship? Contact Sam Ebute, Trades Navigator at CCF at sam.ebute@constructioncareers.org for personalized support from a professional.