From Florida to Wisconsin, contractors across the nation are wrestling with a growing shortage of skilled plumbers. “There are simply not enough skilled workers available in the labor market,” said Troy W. Maschmeyer, Jr., president and CEO, Maschmeyer Concrete in Lake Park, Florida. “Demand is rising, but many older workers have retired or left the trades during the recession. This is a major challenge for contractors and their customers.”

Responding to the need, public schools and workforce development agencies in many states have introduced pre-apprenticeship programs and skills training in plumbing and other construction trades. For example, CareerSource Pasco Hernando in Florida’s Tampa Bay area recently launched a “fast track” plumber training program that moves quickly into an apprenticeship position.

On the national level, the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors–National Association (PHCC) and the PHCC Educational Foundation have sought to change young adults’ perceptions of the plumbing and HVAC fields through classroom programs, videos and hands-on learning experiences.

“We need more than 100,000 new workers to take care of the ones that are retiring,” said Cindy Sheridan, chief operating officer, PHCC Educational Foundation.

Because of the growing demand for skilled workers, plumbing offers well-paying positions and strong career prospects for Americans of all ages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) which tracks employment of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters, said there were 425,000 jobs in this field in 2014 with an estimated increase of 49,100 jobs (12 percent) by 2024. The median pay in 2015 was $50,620 per year or $24.34 per hour.

Construction of buildings that need new plumbing systems should drive demand for these workers, according to the BLS. “Although overall job opportunities are expected to be good, some employers continuing to report difficulty finding qualified workers,” said the BLS.

New training programs

A wide range of recruitment and training programs are underway to bring new workers of all ages into the plumbing and HVAC fields. For example, the PHCC and PHCC Educational Foundation released a video in December that showcases the advantages of a career in plumbing, heating and cooling. “Think about it,” asks the video’s narrator. “No college debt; great pay; huge demand, no matter where you want to live; interesting hands-on work—there’s always new products and technologies to learn. And if you want, someday you can own your own business. So what are you waiting for?”

The video is part of a new website – www.phccareers.com – that highlights the benefits of the skilled trade. Geared for 16- to 24-year-olds, the responsive design site offers a host of training resources, including apprenticeship programs; direct links to PHCC chapters where visitors can learn more about training programs and careers in their local areas; and scholarship information, as well as videos and other materials showcasing the options and opportunities within the industry.

“It creatively shows there’s a lot to like about this industry, including the ability to ‘earn while you learn’ and choose from many career paths that offer attractive salaries,” said PHCC President Patrick Wallner.

Last summer, the PHCC Educational Foundation introduced an HVAC and plumbing pre-apprenticeship course, giving potential workers an opportunity to learn about the day-to-day aspects of the trades before beginning a longer-term apprentice program and eventual career.

Available online, prospective apprentices can take the course at their convenience, using six thematically focused modules that offer an introduction to the trades plus other important aspects of working in the industry, such as basic math skills, tools, safety, and construction drawings.

“This is a great tool not only for those applying for jobs who say they have a certain level of expertise but for anyone actually considering entering the apprenticeship program,” said Laurie Crigler of L&D Associates in Aroda, Virginia.

“It gives a great overview of what they should expect to learn in apprenticeship.”

On a regional level, many plumbing contractors are taking the time to go into local high schools and talk about career opportunities in the industry, including a growing emphasis on technology skills. One example is a “Ride and Decide” program in Knoxville, Tennessee. High school students are paid for a six-week summer job of riding with a plumber, working in the office and observing on the job site.

“When we first presented this over a year ago, we hoped that it would be accepted enough to benefit students and skilled trades in the area,” said Gordy Noe, president, Pioneer Heating & Air Conditioning Inc., and a PHCC chapter leader. “Now the program is gaining momentum daily with the school systems, businesses, students, media, government officials and parents.”

Advocacy efforts

Meanwhile, plumbing and HVAC contractors will continue to advocate for programs like the Perkins Act that provide financial support for students in career and technical education (CTE) programs.

Last year at a PHCC Workforce Development Roundtable on Capitol Hill, a panel of contractors shared proactive recruiting and hiring solutions they have implemented to create awareness of career opportunities and fill the many jobs available in the industry.

After the session, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), a former HVAC builder, called the shortage a “terrible crisis,” noting the difficulty in finding workers for a new stadium being built in the Atlanta area.   “The economy and strength of our country lies with small business,” he added.  “Plumbers provide value-added services.  They add to the quality of buildings constructed in communities and the country.”

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