PHCC’s annual CONNECT event is just weeks away, and this year, show organizers are offering attendees more educational and networking opportunities — and a larger Product and Technology Showcase — than ever before. 

Slated for Oct. 10-12 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and coinciding with the infamous International Balloon Fiesta, the event is co-locating with the 2018 RSES Conference and HVACR Technology Expo to offer a wide variety of education sessions, networking opportunities, and tours and activities for attendees. View a detailed schedule of events.


Plumbing apprentice contest

Perhaps the highlight of the annual CONNECT event, however, is its ongoing Plumbing Apprentice Contest, which takes place right in the show space, where attendees can watch as it progresses. 

During the competition, 20 plumbing apprentices rough-in and build — from scratch — a water closet and lavatory. The prize for the best installation? Thousands of dollars’ worth of tools and some serious bragging rights.

“The contest has been going on longer that I’ve been at I’ve been at PHCC, so we think probably 25 to 30 years now,” says Merry Beth Hall, vice president, education content, PHCC Educational Foundation. “It has evolved a little bit over time, and we try to incorporate a variety of technologies into it.”

This year, Milwaukee Tool is making a large donation of press tools, other tools and prizes to help support the contest and its competitors.

“We’re very lucky,” Hall says. “There are a lot of people who are extremely generous, but they really take the cake on that.”

Jim Steinle, owner of Atomic Plumbing and Drain Cleaning in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and chair of PHCC’s Plumbing Apprentice Contest, says the contest helps bring attention to the trades as a potential career path for young people.

“There are people retiring quicker than they are coming in, and this kind of stuff really brings light to a really good industry that you can make an excellent living in,” Steinle says. “It’s a great trade to learn, and it’s certainly not going to be outsourced anywhere else. And the PHCC apprenticeship program is recognized in 37 states across the country as a qualified program that is BAT-approved — Bureau of Apprenticeship Training.”

Apprentices are judged on a number of things by a pool of 10-12 judges over two days. On the final day, they receive feedback.

“They’re typically judged on craftsmanship, how they clean and cut the pipe, whether they are taking all seven steps to do the copper, whether they’re reaming the PVC pipe, whether they’re putting cleaner on it before they glue it together, and so on,” Steinle says. “The judges spend a lot of time watching them actually work.”

Harold Moret, project manager for the Copper Development Association and a PHCC Plumbing Apprentice Contest judge, says he enjoys judging and training the apprentices during CONNECT.

“On Wednesday and Thursday, we judge, and then on Friday, when we tear down, instead of just tearing everything down we actually take them and show them where they did well and where they can improve at their station,” Moret says. “On judging days, you can’t talk to them, but that feedback day is very important. They can learn from and take away from some of the mistakes they might’ve made.”

The contest also gives apprentices a potentially eye-opening travel experience, which Steinle says is his favorite part of the contest.

“Two years ago, we had one kid who had never been on a plane, never been out of Idaho or wherever he came from. Talking to the kid for 15 minutes one afternoon was just enlightening,” Steinle says. “His eyes were so wide open — he’d just never been out of his town.”

The two biggest benefits of the contest are that it gives students something to strive for, and CONNECT attendees tend to gravitate toward the contest area, which opens up opportunities for additional networking among attendees as they watch the apprentices work.

“And at a time when we have workforce development challenges, it’s really great to see a group of really highly skilled students come out to a national conference and be on that stage,” Hall adds. “I think it kind of gives you the hope for the future of the industry that these guys are out there.”


Nuturing valuable skills

The contest serves two major purposes, Steinle says.

“It is a barometer of how the program is going, and it allows the students to show off what they’ve learned and to give them something to shoot for,” he explains. “In our state, the state of Virginia, we send our top two winners to the national convention. And as long as they are members of PHCC, it doesn’t cost their employer a dime.”

In a time when labor-saving devices have made installing some equipment easier and faster, PHCC recognizes the need for all plumbing apprentices to have a solid foundation built on basic skills such as soldering and brazing. The contest helps highlight and drive home the importance of some of these basic skills, Moret says.

“We’ve seen a decline in people knowing how to solder because of the popularity of press technologies,” he says. “It’s not their fault they don’t know — they only know what they’re taught.”

But PHCC can’t do it all — industry partnerships and sponsorships are vital to keeping the contest going year after year, Hall says.

“We have some really great partnerships that have developed over the years with the industry as a whole on the manufacturing side, and those partnerships allow us to grow and do things like sponsor the contestants’ travel to get here,” she says. “We’ve tried to help the employers by offsetting expenses, and we reimburse a good bit of the travel, and we cover the hotel for the apprentices. So it really helps make it affordable, and that’s thanks to the manufacturing side. Those sponsors are really important, and that’s been an evolution over time.”


More help is needed

While the PHCC — National Association and its manufacturer partners are doing their parts to help develop and train the next generation of plumbing apprentices, contractor participation is the true key to drawing new workers to the trades and training them up to be productive and skilled technicians.

“We highly recommend contractors get involved with their local apprenticeship programs, and that’s done through contacting the local school and instructor and letting them know, ‘Hey, I want to help you out,’ ‘I want to hire your graduates,’ or, ‘I want to come in and teach them how to do something.’ Or anything — you can do almost anything,” Hall says. “If there’s a local or state competition, it means going to the state chapter, or local chapter, and saying, ‘Hey, I want to judge,’ or, ‘I want to help with setup,’ or whatever it is that you want to do. There’s tons of opportunities. And at the national level, we always need judges and help setting up. We have a committee that does a lot of it, but it’s always nice to have the extra hands.”

Moret agrees it all boils down to contractor involvement.

“That’s always the No. 1 topic when I talk to contractors — who’s going to fill their shoes,” Moret says. “It’s one of those investments where if nothing is invested in the front end, nothing will pay off later.”

“What a contractor can do is find out where the closest PHCC affiliate is and get involved that way,” Steinle says. “That gives you access to PHCC schools so you can find one to send students to, or to promote. And if there isn’t one, you can still get access to it online.”

Hall stresses the importance of promoting the trades to everyone.

“We’re all about promoting getting qualified people into the industry — it doesn’t matter what they look like,” Hall says. “We’d love to see more women in the industry. Who wouldn’t? We don’t always have a lot of gender diversity.”

In the end, it’s up to the contractors to go out into their own communities and get people excited and interested in the trades as a potential career, Steinle says.

“The lack of apprentices coming up these days is tremendous, and one of the biggest problems that you hear people scream and holler about is there’s just not enough people coming into trades, not enough good technicians out there,” he says. “My response to that is, what are you doing to solve the problem? How many guys do you have in the apprenticeship program? How many guys are you training right now so that won’t be a problem down the road?”

To learn more about CONNECT 2018 and to register for the event, visit


Top-notch keynote speakers

CONNECT 2018 will feature several well-respected keynote speakers who will explore how to engage the emerging workforce and respond to economic changes in one’s plumbing business.

Mike MichalowiczMike Michalowicz, author and entrepreneur, will present “The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy for Growing a Remarkable Business” the morning of Oct. 10. Under the pressure to stay alive — let alone grow — it’s easy for entrepreneurs to get caught up in a never-ending cycle of “sell it, do it, sell it, do it” that leaves them exhausted, frustrated and unable to get ahead no matter how hard they try. Experiencing this exact situation, Michalowicz discovered a business strategy from farmers. Not the everyday guys, but those county fair geeks who grow 1-ton pumpkins. They hold the secret to explosive growth, and Michalowicz will show attendees how it applies directly to their businesses. 

Eric ChesterEric Chester will present “Jobs Aren’t ‘Sexy’ Enough? How to Attract Employees Anyway!” the morning of Oct. 11. In this high-energy and dynamic (and even a bit humorous) presentation, Chester reveals today’s best practices for recruiting, training, managing and motivating the under-30 demographic. For business leaders seeking to connect with employees who have radically different work values, this in-the-trenches workplace researcher and thought-leader cracks the code on tactics and strategies that companies recognized as the “best places to work” are using to get employees to perform up to their remarkable potential. Chester is a Hall of Fame speaker and author of five best-selling books about developing employees, igniting passion within a diverse workforce, and creating a culture where people perform better and stay longer.

Connor LokarConnor Lokar will present “Stay Ahead of the Curve” the morning of Oct. 12. Lokar will share what the leading indicators are saying about the economy for the rest of 2018, what the outlook is for 2019, and — most importantly — what that means for plumbing and HVACR contractors. Find out why the consumer could be in a weakened position in 2019 and what steps attendees should take to continue running efficient, profitable operations. A well-respected economist with ITR Economics, Lokar’s economic insight and forecasting experience play a key role in the company’s 94.7% accuracy rating. Lokar will deliver the morning keynote address on Friday, Oct. 12.