Q&A: The Benefits and Misconceptions of Joining the Plumbing Trades

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Q&A: The Benefits and Misconceptions of Joining the Plumbing Trades

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In 1967, a handful of plumbers from the south side of Pittsburgh got together to form the Associated Master Plumbers of Allegheny County with the modest goal of creating a space for local plumbers to share ideas and experiences from the field. More than 50 years later, AMPAC has grown to become Pennsylvania’s largest school for plumbing apprentices.

Just over the hill from AMPAC is General Pipe Cleaners' headquarters in McKees Rocks. General is proud to have such a great program in its backyard and recently partnered with AMPAC by providing equipment and training to the next generation of plumbers and drain cleaners. General spoke with AMPAC president, John Cummins, about AMPAC’s mission, getting young people excited about the trades and the school’s partnership with General.

So, how did you get your start in the plumbing industry?

John Cummins: Back in the ’70s, an old friend of the family needed a helper. It was just a summer job to make a couple bucks, but it kind of snowballed from there. That’s how I got my start in the trade.

And how did you get involved with AMPAC?

Cummins: I went through their apprenticeship program back in the mid-1980s. I continued on through the four-year program and was employed by the president of the association. I eventually got on the board as a director and worked my way through, and took over as president seven years ago. Since then, we’ve been on a pretty steady upward trajectory. We are the largest plumbing apprenticeship school in the state of Pennsylvania. We have over 320 apprentices in our four-year apprenticeship program right now.

Can you describe the program for us?

Cummins: What we offer is a pretty broad painting of the plumbing trade. We do a little bit of every facet of the trade. I compare it to being a doctor. You start as a general practitioner and then you specialize. We offer things like OSHA 10 safety classes, confined space and trench shoring, first aid, CPR, etc. Then we get into certain gas type certifications. If you go through our four-year program, you leave our school with 10 certifications that are yours to keep.

My staff is awesome. They are some of the best in the trade and combine for more than 2,000 years of industry knowledge that they bring to our classrooms.

What are some of the challenges that AMPAC faces in getting young people interested in the trades?

Cummins: The biggest battle I’ve come across at job fairs is the guidance counselors. They want their numbers to look good, so they tell you that you need to go to college. But a lot of people just aren’t built for college. Out of all the people in our program, about 40% have a secondary education that is not benefitting them whatsoever, so that is why they’ve come to the trades.

The second challenge is the parents. They have a complete misconception about the trades and how much money you can make working in the trades. I was taught a long time ago that a man who works with his hands can take care of his family. That holds true.

What are some of the things you say to your students to get them excited about a career in the trades?

Cummins: You can really make as much in this trade as you want. We just went through a pandemic. We’ve proven that the allied trades are recession-proof. We worked straight through all of it. We never slowed down. We were actually working overtime covering odds and ends. It was a unique time to prove that point. None of my apprentices were laid off. They worked every day.

If you lay out the lifetime earnings of a four-year degree compared to the trades, I earn more and don’t incur the costs when getting started. You’re working while you’re going through your apprenticeship. In the end, you have less than $10,000 in total expenditures for a future six-figure income. I would put that up against any profession.

I tell my students to carry themselves like professionals because they are professionals. You’ve earned the right to have as much respect as a doctor or a lawyer or anyone in a white-collar field.

How would you say the trade has changed in recent years?

Cummins: I tell all my apprentices that plumbing is a blue-collar trade, but it takes a white-collar intellect to do it now. With everything being computer operated, from water heaters to boilers to intense hydraulics systems, it is more updated than the famous image of a guy with his butt crack out and a wrench in his hands.

Water heaters are fixed on a laptop now. General Pipe Cleaners makes sewer inspection equipment that is compatible with your smartphone. I can send a customer a stream of what I’m seeing in their line. I can show someone in real-time what is going on. It’s so much more advanced than the last 20 years. The opportunities are there to help anyone succeed.

How did you get involved with General Pipe Cleaners?

Cummins: General Pipe Cleaners came on in 2020 and they’ve been a huge part of the AMPAC drain cleaning program. I built a drain cleaning room to simulate problems out in the field. General stepped in and brought a bunch of their latest tools and equipment. They are instructing students on how to properly operate the equipment. They really stepped up and I really appreciate it.

General being right over the hill from our school is a huge asset to the program. I really have to thank General for what they’ve done for the school, to take the time to educate my staff on their equipment, for their years of knowledge of what is coming down through the manufacturers and letting us and our students get our hands on the newest products.

They brought locating cameras, drum machines and sectional machines up to the school and everything was brand-new. Stuff on the cover of drain cleaning magazines. They definitely see the value in getting these machines out to the young plumbers to try, and the young plumbers really appreciate it.

To learn more about AMPAC, visit ampacplumber.org. For more information about General’s tools and equipment, visit drainbrain.com, or contact the Drain Brains at General at 800-245-6200.


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