It pays to learn a trade. That’s a story that Chris Jania can talk about. Jania, 43, has been a member of the Ironworkers Local Union 84 for 20 years and has been involved in a number of energy-related projects because he took the time to learn his craft, and learn it well.
A Sagittarius, Jania embodies the definition of his half-human, half-horse counterpart with his infinite generosity, Utopian outlook, and an undeniable knack at making those around him laugh. As accomplished as he is today, Jania spent most of his teenage years working at Taco Bell for the unlimited amount of fire hot sauce packets he could pocket.
Jania has a diverse portfolio that ranges from steel support at Texas Children’s Hospital to multiple oil and gas shutdown projects. In this interview, Jania talks about what it means to be an ironworker, coupled with the struggles and payoffs of the job.
P&GJ: What is your job title and what does it involve?
Jania: I’m an ironworker. There’s a lot of welding and steel erection involved for pipe support for plants. You might see a lot of pipes going into the air and we put the framework down to support those pipes. Ironworking consists of a lot of things from heavy rigging, structural steel work, and occasionally even window installation.
P&GJ: Where are you from and what were your interests growing up?
Jania: I’m from Houston. I was into dirt bikes and anything outdoors growing up. A friend of my dad lived next door and was a pipefitter. He would build fences and barbeque pits out of pipe and do other welding projects at his house. I was able to help him which got me interested in the trade.
P&GJ: What made you get into the ironworking field?
Jania: I took metal shop as a class in high school, which taught me the basics of welding education. I knew I wasn’t going to go to college, so I picked up the trade. I hated school, except for metal shop.
A big influence for me was my Uncle Ed. He was an ironworker in my union back in the day and we were close when I was growing up. He was a part of history. They made their own tools, maintained the largest steel mill in the U.S., and did all the fabrication of the iron on buildings people work in every day.
P&GJ: What oil and gas plants have you worked on?
Jania: I was an ironworker in Port Arthur, TX, at Valero for about a year building pipe racks. Then I went to Deer Park, TX, for a shutdown project at Shell, where I mainly rigged and supported other craftsmen like scaffolders. There was a lot of rigging involved in order to pull a valve out or replace a valve, tank, or pipe. I also worked a job at ExxonMobil lifting heavy vessels and at Babcock and Wilcox Construction in Cedar Bayou, TX, hanging iron.
P&GJ: How have low oil prices affected ironworkers and other craftsmen in today’s job market?
Jania: Right now the industry is bad, but during election season everything goes down. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I know that as soon as the election ends, no matter who wins, work will pick back up.
P&GJ: What’s it like to be in such a volatile market in terms of job security?
Jania: It’s very hard. The hardest part is that one day your boss comes up to you and tells you that you’re laid off. They want you to give them two weeks’ notice before you quit, but they will fire you in an instant. I know a lot of people that are laid off right now. If I had to guess, I’d say 60-70% of the craftsmen I know are out of a job.
P&GJ: When there is adequate work, is it hard to find qualified workers for various projects?
Jania: There’s not a shortage of qualified people; however, they’re all taken or running projects. It’s hard to get qualified help on our end because the pay is so low starting off.
P&GJ: How important is safety on the different projects you’ve work on?
Jania: Safety is extremely important. I fell 25 feet from a beam on a construction job and landed three to four inches away from a piece of rebar. I was in intensive care for two days and had to get 25 stitches in my forehead. During the accident, I was wearing proper safety gear but the yo-yo (self-retracting lifeline) was faulty. A lot of guys don’t check their safety gear before getting started on a project. I used to be one of them. My accident shows how important it is to check your safety equipment every time before you use it to ensure reliability, and potentially save your life.
P&GJ: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your field?
Jania: The biggest challenge I’ve faced is that I’ve been doing my job for so long that I know how to do it properly and there’s always somebody fresh out of college to tell you that you have to do it their way. You just have to learn how to bite your tongue.
P&GJ: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Jania: It’s rewarding to be able to look back and see what you’ve done. You could drive by a mile-long pipe rack and know that you helped build that. There’s something gratifying about seeing a finished product that you’ve worked so hard on.
P&GJ: What’s it like to be in a union?
Jania: Being in a union is like being part of a brotherhood. We all have each other’s backs no matter what. A union means better wages, insurance, a pension, and a 401(k). There are rules and regulations that a union contractor has to abide by in order to keep their employees safe, such as having the proper tools for the job and providing safety equipment.
Some craftsmen choose not to be in unions because in Texas, since we are a right-to-work state, contractors say our wages are too high and they will hire off of the street. Unions often get sold out by cheaper labor, but the pros far outweigh the cons.
P&GJ: Who’s your hero?
Jania: Fred Flintstone is my hero because he took the corners off of a block and made a wheel. If we’re talking a real person, then my hero is my best friend Bubba Phillips because he always takes care of me. He has been an ironworker in the union for 45 years. Anytime that I have a union question he is there with an answer.
P&GJ: What’s your advice for others out there interested in getting into the welding or ironworking field?
Jania: My biggest advice is to think about your future and family. If the company or union that you belong to doesn’t have adequate benefits, then you need to do some research. If you see a kid right out of high school coming on to a job acting like a superhero, you have to put your hand on his shoulder and say, “Hey, look, that ain’t right.”
Also, pay attention in school and during training because it might not be a piece of protective equipment that saves your life; it might be what you’ve learned or even an old-timer on the project looking out for you.