A Q&A With Kyle Salva, Local 483 Apprentice and Reigning National Sprinkler-Fitting Champion

By George Verlaine | contributing reporter & photographer

Martinez native Kyle Salva is a father of three and a sprinkler fitter who won the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters’ 2023 National Apprentice Competition, which pits apprentices from around the world against their counterparts in a battery of tests to evaluate skill in a variety of plumbing- and pipefitting-related disciplines.

The competition was fierce, but Salva reigned victorious, taking first place among his sprinkler fitter competitors at the national event in August — and he’s just getting started. In September, we interviewed the enthusiastic tradesman and union member and learned a lot about who he is, how he came up, and what he’s looking forward to accomplishing in the near future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Where did you grow up and what were your interests and hobbies as a kid?

I was born and raised in Martinez. There were always lots of activities when I was growing up. My parents had us going camping all the time, and we did a lot of water-sports, like wakeboarding. I rode and raced dirt bikes and snowboarded. I love being outdoors. These days, I still snowboard, and I love to fish. I’ve got a little 14-foot aluminum boat, so I’ll take that out in the water a lot.

Where do you live now?

My wife and I bought a house out in Oakley about three years ago. I’d lived in Martinez my whole life until I left for the military in 2014. That was after I graduated high school in 2012 and spent some time at Los Medanos College out in Pittsburg, where I took firefighting and EMT courses.

I always knew I wanted to go into the military — that’s why I took those classes. I thought I’d become a military firefighter. But it wasn’t what I was expecting, so I switched to studying aviation and structural mechanics instead. I learned all of the hydraulic systems and paneling on the F/A-18 [aircraft] platform. I did my four years of service and got out of the military in 2018. I ended up going back to community college to finish my general education and take some business management classes. It was around that time that I went into the trade.

How did you get into the trades?

At first, I went through [the military-to-career program] Helmets to Hardhats to try to get into Elevator Constructors Local 8. I successfully tested and interviewed with them. I was told I was a top candidate, but they were selecting only a couple of candidates at the time, and I wasn’t one of them.

Right then, I had a buddy who had just turned out in Local 483. He said, “Why don’t you try my trade? They’ve got one more testing period.” So, I figured, alright, cool. I knew I wanted to work with my hands. I took the test, passed, and had a panel interview with the business agents. They said that I scored really well and that they wanted to get me in, so I went with it.

In October 2018, I was three months into my apprenticeship when I found out that my wife was pregnant with our first child. My medical coverage was going to be rolling in after my probationary period, and I knew my kid would need it. I also really enjoyed sprinkler fitting right off the bat. It’s like a big puzzle to me, and I like puzzles and figuring stuff out. So, those are the reasons I stuck with it.

How did you get involved with the U.A.’s apprentice competition?

Once you get about three years into this trade, people start talking about the competition. I played a lot of sports growing up, so I’m very competitive. As soon as I heard about the competition, I knew I wanted in.

I put in a lot of extra work studying and working to ace all my tests. Then, Covid took off. By the time it all blew over last year, I was an eighth-period apprentice, four years into the trade. I made it into the local competition, where I did really well. At one point, I messed up a project and had to de-solder the whole thing and then re-solder it back together with just a few minutes left, and I ended up winning. I lost the 2022 state contest, though.

Coming into this year, I was determined to try again. At the local contest in Vacaville, we were competing outside in 100-degree weather, but again, I did well. My projects all held water, and my measurements were good. I advanced to Las Vegas for the regional competition against the 11 west coast states that make up District 5. We had a really hard 10-hour project there for the first two days. On top of that, every step of the way, we had to do an exam. So, I put in my work and double-checked everything — and I ended up winning, which meant I was going to the national finals.

Around that time, I injured my back and got some time off work. Well, I utilized that time to come down to the Local 483 training center, which is an incredible resource. We have all these different valves, pumps, pipes, everything you can imagine. All of it is accessible to any apprentice or journeyman who wants to practice. I spent a lot of time there tripping all the valves, tearing apart accelerators, and basically just messing with everything I possibly could and sitting in there studying every single night because I wanted to win so badly.

So, I got sent to Ann Arbor, MI, to compete against the five U.S. districts, plus Canada and Australia. I was nervous going up against these men and women who were all the best in their districts. And the whole time you’re competing, you don’t know your score, so your wheels are just spinning. It’s nerve-wracking!

We did a bunch of different projects: rigging, a copper project, a plastic project, a four-hour [National Fire Protection Association] test, and a big piping project. Once we started piping, I felt good. I felt calm. I was cruising. I was focused on the work and not worrying about anybody else. The contest finished, and we went to the graduation to hear the results. Standing up on stage, I was nervous again, twiddling my fingers. Suddenly, I heard them call my name. I won. It was awesome — such a great feeling.

What do you like about working union?

I love being a part of 483. The camaraderie in this local is through the roof. Working in this union trade has improved my life. The diversity of work has been awesome. I’ve done service jobs and tenant improvement, and now I’m on new construction. Also, the good medical coverage is big for me. My son needs medicine that would be $4,000 a month if it wasn’t for our plan.

What are your some of your goals for the future?

I want to get into the Local 483 training department and become an instructor. This is my career, and I want to give back to my union and train all of the young apprentices who are just coming up to be the best they can be.

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