TAMPA — No one can claim Shad Earls was unprepared for the Iron Workers Apprentice Competition, a semi-annual event that pits welders in training and this week landed in East Tampa.
A third-year apprentice representing Iron Workers Local 397, which is located in Tampa, Earls said that for the past month he spent about 10 hours a day practicing for the regional competition, where he tested his skills against locals apprentices from such places as Miami, Jacksonville and Atlanta.
The two-day event concluded just after noon Thursday with the 35-foot column climb, which requires the apprentices to reach the top using just their hands and feet.
"I'd get a tool belt on with a harness and load my bolt bags full with about 50 pounds of tools, hook up to it and go," said Earls, describing how he trained for the event. "I'd try and climb it as fast as I can with all that weight."
On Thursday, it took Earl 8.22 seconds to climb 35 feet and slap the bell at the top of the column. It wasn't his fastest time ever — he says he made it in 6.6 seconds while practicing two days earlier — but his time was still the fastest of the nine competitors, edging out the runner-up by about a tenth of a second.
The climb was the last of eight events that also included a written test and tasks such as welding, knot tying and window assembly and installation. Organizers will announce the winner once they tally the points from each event. The top two finishers will go on to represent the Southeast at the international competition in Toronto this September.
Iron Workers General President Walter Wise traveled from Washington, D.C., to attend the competition. He said the breadth of events accurately represented the variety of jobs done by iron workers.
"The iron working trade is very diversified. Most people associate it with structural steel, with bridges and high-rises," Wise said. "But we also place the reinforcing steel that's in concrete. When you look at a building with glass walls on the outside, iron workers do that work."
Wise said the competition is a good opportunity for the public to see the sort of skills it takes to be an iron worker and for apprentices to meet their peers from across North America.
And, like many other people, iron workers enjoy competing against each other.
"Everybody wants to win, but only one can," Earls said. "You've got to be the best at your game."
Victoria Jacobsen can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.