The shortage of skilled journeymen and service technicians won't end until pay scales match what they're worth.

Let's create some nifty recruitment videos and brochures. Let's dialog and liaison with school counselors. Let's start propagandizing kids when they're still in elementary school. Let's raise money for a public relations campaign to improve the image of the trade. Let's form another committee or task force to look into the problem.

Let's do all this and everything else that's already been thought of to trick talented youngsters into doing what they have so manifestly demonstrated throughout the last decade that they do not want to do, which is pursue careers in the pipe trades. Let's do all this and more, and the industry will continue to spin its wheels, because none of these recruitment gimmicks address the one thing that might actually succeed where all else has failed.

Pay them what they're worth. Here's what I mean.

    Plumbers, $16.73.

    Pipefitters, $16.23.

Those were the average nationwide wage rates reported in 1999 for nonunion plumbers and fitters by PAS Inc. (, an organization that tracks nonunion wage and fringe data for all construction and related service trades. Regional figures vary by a buck or two in line with cost of living differences, but the basic picture is the same everywhere.

Bottom Of The Barrel

The U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics has its own database broken down by state, shown in the chart on the next page. These numbers blend both union and nonunion wages. Check out some of the numbers at the low end of the scale - South Carolina, $11.72; Florida, $12.20; North Carolina, $12.34; Mississippi, $12.97.

For a national average BLS calculated plumber/fitter wages at $17.46 as of 1997. Again, this includes both union and nonunion, which ratchets up the BLS figure a bit higher than PAS's strictly nonunion survey. However, the vast majority of pipe trades work done in this country nowadays is at lower nonunion rates, especially in the residential sector. Besides, union pay scales aren't even what they used to be. More on this later.

Full employment is traditionally defined as 2,000 hours of work in a year. Multiply the PAS numbers by 2,000 and you'll find the average nonunion plumber or pipefitter earns between $32,000-34,000 a year. This average encompasses not only entry-level workers, but also grizzled veterans with decades of experience. Add a couple of thousand more for those who achieve foreman or lead journeyman status. PAS shows fringes adding another 17 percent to the average compensation package, which is not exceptional either.

Thirty-some grand a year may sound like pretty good money to some of you, and that's a large part of the problem. How can you sell the value of your trade if you don't comprehend it yourself? In most parts of the country people can make that kind of money in semi-skilled factory jobs, or by tending bar or waiting tables in a halfway decent restaurant, or in various other jobs less taxing than what you call upon your journeymen and service technicians to do.

Which is, to spend years in training to become skillful enough to do your craft's work without supervision. To learn the trade well enough to be trusted to perform tasks with life and death ramifications. To endure physically exhausting and dirty labor day after day in our economy's second most dangerous industry (next to farming). For service technicians to spend several evenings a month on call with restricted personal activities.

This is what contractors expect in return for incomes in the low- to mid-30s on average. Then you wrack your brains and wring your hands wondering why the industry can't attract more qualified people into its ranks. More mysterious is how on occasion you do manage to con a worthy young person into such a deal.

Have I Got A Job For You!

I wrote about the same subject on this page in July 1996, in an article titled, "Let's Not Mince Words - The Pay Stinks!" At the time I cited PAS's 1995 average wage rates of $13.64 for plumbers and $14.36 for pipefitters. Their pay has inched up since then. At this rate of gain, by the year 2100 trade wages might truly be causing excitement among that generation's work force.

For now, though, here's what an industry recruiter's pitch sounds like to a levelheaded youngster.

    Have I got a job for you!

    You'll be working in below-zero winter cold and in the sun when it's above 100 degrees. You'll be called upon to wallow inside rat-infested crawl spaces and come in contact with human waste. The work you'll be doing has one of the highest injury rates of any field, and if you don't do it right, you can kill or injure others. Work tends to come in boom and bust spurts. When there's not enough work, there's a good chance you'll be laid off. That's what the unemployment office is for.

    And for all this, odds are pretty good that you'll make about as much money as you can tending bar, waiting tables or delivering packages - except during the years you spend in training, when the pay will be much lower.

    We're desperate, so how soon can you start?

The work you do always has been and always will be dirty and hazardous. Not much anyone can do about that, but this in itself isn't what's driving kids away. The U.S. Marines are renowned for doing the dirtiest and most dangerous work of all the military services, but they are also the only ones that always fill their quota.

A similar mystique used to attach to construction work. Those of us who grew up in a blue-collar environment viewed trade workers at the top of the social strata. Everyone knew they were rugged, proficient and made more money than just about anyone in the neighborhood. Now everyone in those neighborhoods thinks they're better off being a bus driver or mail carrier.

Union Pay

Union pay scales vary widely but on the whole are much higher than nonunion. They range from the high teens down south to the high $20s in the northern industrial states, with a handful of markets like San Francisco and Alaska off the charts. An educated guess would be that the average union journeyman makes around $45,000-$50,000 a year working 2,000 hours. This approaches respectability, and it's why union apprenticeship programs generally have a little easier time finding able recruits than does the nonunion sector, but not much.

In my 1996 editorial I cited an article from Peter Cockshaw's newsletter showing that wage scales for union trade workers had fallen 20 percent to 25 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since the salad days of the late-1970s. Many people would say that's because they were overpaid back then. I would rebut that back then the pipe trades didn't have nearly as much trouble finding recruits who could read and do simple math.

Others would scoff that the figures shown here are misleading, because they don't account for premium pay overtime, which is plentiful nowadays. But overtime merely helps to counterbalance the lean years of short hours and layoffs. Besides, the dearth of young people means that the pipe trades are plagued with an aging work force. Plumbers and fitters in their 50s and 60s find the pipe and tools weighing heavier in their hands. They don't necessarily view overtime as a plus.

Oh, and then there are all those surveys showing that today's youngsters value recognition more than money. Give them a pat on the back once in awhile and they'll gladly work for peanuts, say the professors who come up with these studies. I don't buy it, but in any case, this industry is not noted for great backrubs either.

Yeah, I know, I fail to take into account the industry's harsh economic realities. If you pay more, you'll be uncompetitive and won't get any work, goes the prevailing mentality. The almost unprecedented prosperity enjoyed by the construction industry during the 1990s is mainly supposed to benefit developers, architects, insurers, lawyers, consultants, accountants, lobbyists, owners, GCs and anyone else who wears a tie to work. It would all fall to pieces if you tried cutting the working stiffs in on the action.

Maybe I'd swallow this logic were I out there trying to book work. But this essay isn't about the macroeconomics of contracting. I'm merely pointing out the simple, time-tested truth that you get what you are willing to pay for.

Just about every contractor in this industry has spent the last 10 years crying about the shortage of skilled labor. Hardly anyone has put two and two together to figure out that it's because the compensation packages aren't nearly enough to attract the caliber of people you want in the numbers you need. Increase the pay enough, and you will see both the quantity and quality of trade applicants go up.

Why is it that so many people are quick to cite market forces in justifying cheap labor, but fail to acknowledge the equally valid economic relationship between compensation and the supply of trained labor? Thirty grand a year may be way too much to pay for jobs that are easily learned and attract a boundless supply of applicants. But $60,000 a year and more is not excessive for well-trained plumbers, pipefitters and service technicians in short supply. If the average wage scales were in that range, you'd find many more ambitious young people willing to get their hands dirty doing your unglamorous work.

The automotive, airline and computer industries, among others, are also characterized by highly paid work forces. They manage to thrive by passing along costs to their customers and constantly improving productivity. What is it about the construction trades that prevents you from doing likewise?