Fostering a Built-In Labor Pool of Plumbers

Ohio's largest plumbing and drain cleaning company addresses the shortage of skilled young workers by investing in their future.

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One of the biggest challenges faced by plumbing and drain cleaning contractors such as The Waterworks in Columbus, Ohio, is a lack of qualified young workers. The bottom line: Young people are less and less interested in pursuing skilled trades as a career. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. currently needs 29 percent more HVACR and 21 percent more plumbing technicians – a total of more than 100,000 skilled workers. Among the estimated 500,000 plumbers in the United States alone, demand is expected to rise 10 percent by 2016. But at the same time, more than one-third of all plumbers – or approximately 167,000 workers – are expected to leave the labor pool.

The Waterworks is combating the problem by establishing an in-house apprenticeship program, where employees can follow a nationally accredited curriculum developed by the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER). 

In-house training is unusual in the plumbing industry, says David Specht, the company’s president, noting that workers typically earn a license through a union trade school. But he believes that offering such a program under the company’s roof represents a deeper level of commitment that resonates with and engenders loyalty from employees who see a company that’s willing to invest in them.

“This will be one of our most important focus areas in the next several years – even more important than what services we choose to expand into,” Specht says. “Our goal is to grow our own employees … recruit young men and women interested in the trades and then educate them.

“When they finish, they’ll have a nationally accredited journeyman’s plumbing license in their trade that’s valid nationwide,” he continues. “We believe it’s very important that these young people walk away with a degree in a blue-collar industry … be able to stick a card in their wallets and feel good about it. We don’t want to bring in laborers just to hump buckets and carry tools. We want to help these kids earn a sense of accomplishment.”

Specht points out that the median income for plumbers at The Waterworks is around $48,000, a solid wage that should be attractive to young people.

Waterworks plans to focus on hiring interns, then motivating them to take the roughly 600 hours of classroom education that’s a prerequisite for the journeyman’s plumbing license. “Then we can hire them [full-time] and catch them up on the 8,000 hours of actual work experience required to earn a license,” Specht says.

Waterworks will soon be publicizing the program through school districts and newspaper ads. And while he concedes that providing employees with a journeyman’s license carries a certain amount of risk, since it provides them with the means to leave and become independent plumbers, Specht says it’s a chance worth taking – especially given the acute labor shortage.

“We offer good benefits and compensation, good leadership and so forth to keep them around,” he notes. “Our company has single-digit attrition in an industry that probably pushes 50 percent [for employee turnover]. 

“The most important thing is growing talent,” he continues. “We need to grow and invest in young people to continue to keep our trade what it is. Not everyone is cut out for [college] schooling. We need to get the word out that people can make a good living in our industry and support a family. That’s our top priority right now.”


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