Written by Mike Flenniken 10:17 pm Column, Member Profile

Preaching What He Practices 

In-N-Out was not what Wyatt Stiles wanted his career to be all about. After working for the popular Southern California burger chain throughout high school, he appeared destined for the company’s management school — In-N-Out University — because he didn’t have the money to attend a traditional college or university. 

However, Stiles’ then-stepfather was a welder and told him all about the pipe trades, so he applied to the apprenticeship program at his local union. He was a pre-apprentice for about nine months before beginning the five-year program. 

“They scheduled me to attend In-N-Out management school and that’s when I came to realize I didn’t want to be stuck in one spot for my career,” he said. “I liked the idea of being outdoors and going to a new project every year, basically. Different cities, different projects and different people, and that’s what really attracted me and why I fell in love with this trade.” 

More than 25 years later, Stiles would say it was the perfect fit. And he’s spreading the word. Now an organizer for UA Local 398 in Rancho Cucamonga, California, he works tirelessly to educate others about the benefits and countless possibilities a career in the trades brings. 

His coverage area encompasses much of the area east of Los Angeles, spanning from South El Monte and Pasadena to Rancho Cucamonga and Corona. 

Stiles initially joined a company that primarily focused on retail projects, followed by one that worked strictly on schools. He then worked for Neiman Mechanical, which specialized on work at the prestigious California Institute of Technology, better known as Caltech. He spent the bulk of his professional career at H.L. Moe Co., where he became a foreman after completing his apprenticeship. 

Though H.L. Moe Co. builds projects ranging from retail to amusement parks to colleges, it was in hospitals that Stiles ultimately found his niche. A medical gas installer most of his career, for the past five years he has also been a medical gas instructor at the Apprentice & Journeymen Training Trust Fund of the Southern California Plumbing & Piping Industry. 

Stiles said he enjoyed working with Iggy Contreras — now an IAPMO regional manager — as a medical gas instructor. 

About 10 years into his professional career Stiles became an officer with UA Local 398, serving on the finance committee and the examiners’ board. He relinquished his officer position three years ago to become a full-time organizer. 

Stiles regularly attends career fairs at school and water districts to attract potential applicants and let them know about a career in the trades. He said like many people, the first thing they think about is the person who comes to their homes to snake their drains when they get clogged. He said they’re quite surprised to learn about all the different types of buildings they work on, with their elaborate plumbing systems. 

Technology minded students’ interest is piqued when they learn about designing plumbing systems on computers, while others’ ears perk up when they learn about the opportunities to make sales and earn commissions for service and repair. 

“When you say plumber, they usually get a funny look on their face until you start describing all the good stuff that we get to do,” he said. 

Another big draw is when he tells students about the UA’s five-year apprenticeship program in which they go to school and work at the same time — the union’s “earn while you learn” model. 

“They’re all expecting to go to college and have a big student loan they’re going to have to pay off, and that’s what they have in mind already,” he said. “They’re discouraged with that, and when you talk to them about a free education, they get more and more interested.” 

He said the reemergence of auto, metal and wood shop classes in many high schools has helped open young people’s eyes to a career in the trades, and he regularly visits welding and Career & Technical Education (CTE) classes to educate students about the myriad career paths. He also speaks to students in the Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (MC3), a comprehensive pre-apprenticeship training program put together by the union building trades, at local colleges. 

Stiles doesn’t only reach out to young people who are unfamiliar with the trades. He also regularly visits job sites to speak with non-union workers who could see their earning potential greatly increase by going through the UA program. 

When the opportunity presents itself, Stiles approaches workers installing piping and/or plumbing and gives them the UA’s contact information. He said for many of them it’s a no-brainer once they see the pay scale, but others are reluctant to speak with him because they’re afraid of losing their current job. Not surprisingly, Stiles’ presence isn’t always well received by those in charge. 

“I get thrown off of projects more often than I get let on and talk to workers,” he said. “That’s the bad part of the job is we’re not welcome everywhere we go to offer people better wages and pay. Between the general contractors and the developers, they try to keep us out of these projects. So that’s kind of a battle, getting onto those projects and talking to those workers.” 

Ensuring local cities and schools continue to employ licensed pipe trades workers for their projects is another key component of his job. Stiles and other UA representatives regularly attend public hearings to speak about the importance of project labor agreements (PLAs). 

“PLAs are very important. They help employ a skilled and trained local workforce, while ensuring benefits are being paid to workers and our tax dollars aren’t being wasted,” he said. 

Stiles joined IAPMO when he became an organizer and regularly attends the Inland Empire Chapter’s meetings in Ontario. His position requires reaching out to contractors to let them know about the benefits of being a signatory contractor, and being a member helps facilitate making those connections. 

“IAPMO’s involvement with all contractors and the piping industry frequently bridges that gap for me,” he said. “Keeping up with industry changes has been the biggest advantage to being a member.” 

More than 25 years into his career, Stiles could not be more thankful to the doors the UA’s apprenticeship program opened for him. It didn’t take long for the program to change his life — rather than putting his paychecks toward a costly tuition, Stiles was able to buy his first house as a second-year apprentice. 

His recruiting efforts aren’t limited to outside of his home, either — he and his wife, Crystal, have a son named Westley who is a second-year apprentice. 

Much like his position with the UA, Stiles’ hobbies keep him outside most of the time — snowboarding in the winter and at the beach or boating on the Colorado River when the weather warms up. 

Because a traditional college or university was never in the cards for him, Stiles never gave much thought to which career he would’ve pursued had it been an option. 

Because of how quickly he took to it despite his lack of familiarity with plumbing, he has never looked back. 

“I had no knowledge of how to put in piping and do construction, and the apprenticeship taught me everything I needed to know,” he said. “I didn’t have any prior knowledge, and that’s one of the things I tell kids — you don’t have to have any knowledge in this trade; we will teach you everything you need to know to be successful.” 

Stiles offers the following advice to young people he encounters who find themselves in the position he was in when he graduated from high school: 

“Pick a trade where once you get the knowledge of that trade under your belt, it can never be taken away from you, and you can take that knowledge and that trade anywhere you go in life,” he said.

Mike Flenniken
Staff Writer at IAPMO

Mike Flenniken is a staff writer, Marketing and Communications, for IAPMO. Prior to joining IAPMO in 2010, Flenniken worked in public relations for a group of Southern California hospitals and as a journalist in writing and editing capacities for various Southern California daily newspapers.

Last modified: April 30, 2024