The skilled labor shortage will eventually come back to haunt again.
You don’t hear contractors
complain as much as they used to about the difficulty in finding good plumbers
and fitters. A work shortage has pretty much done away with the worker shortage
for the time being. But only for the time being.
Sooner or later (please let it be sooner) construction will boom again, and
then the industry will be back to square one in coping with the task of finding
enough trade professionals to build and service all the plumbing and piping
systems that require their skills. This miserable recession momentarily put a
damper on demand, but may well worsen the long-term problem because much training
has been curtailed at a time when jobs are not available to accommodate newly
Last September, UA Pipefitters Local 597 and the Mechanical Contractors
Association of Chicago hosted a so-called Tripartite Conference consisting of
union officials, their employers and end users to exchange ideas on working
together. Keynote speaker for the event was UA General President Bill Hite, who
addressed the looming labor shortage. According to him, the nonunion sector
represents about 60 percent of the industry, yet trains less than 15 percent of
Most estimates put the nonunion market share even higher, upwards of 70 percent
when residential construction is factored in. It’s unclear where Hite got his
15 percent share for nonunion training, but the figure sounds plausible. That’s
because nonunion training is hampered by key structural deficiencies.
Even in good times, demand for construction labor vacillates from year to year,
even month to month. So nonunion companies are understandably reluctant to
invest time and money training people who may go to work for a competitor at
any moment. In tough times particularly, training money forms a bulls-eye for
cost-cutting CFOs. Nonunion multiemployer training programs try to mimic what
the unions do and spread the cost around, but without collective bargaining
agreements their programs rely upon voluntary contributions by business
competitors whose vested interests do not usually mesh.
A nonunion contractor can save a lot of money and trouble by simply recruiting
out-of-work union-trained craftsmen, and that’s exactly what many of them do.
Whenever significant numbers of union members are on the bench, it’s almost
senseless for a nonunion contractor to invest in training.
Union craft training dominates because it is supported by mandatory
contributions backed by the force of labor law. The amount available for
training ratchets up and down with manhours worked, but even in bad times some
money always goes into training funds. Plus, the hiring hall and traveler
system enables contractors who belong to a collective bargaining group to
easily adjust work forces to market conditions.
Moreover, let’s give credit where it’s due. The training provided by the UA and
its joint apprenticeship contractors is first-rate. They realize this is their
lifeblood and they take pride in it. Hite said the UA and its local unions
invest some $170 million a year in pipe trades training. I’ve never seen a comparable
estimate for the nonunion sector at-large, but it’s almost certain the
cumulative tally wouldn’t come close to the UA’s.
This is not to say the union side has it all figured out. Despite its vaunted
training reputation, the UA still has trouble attracting talented young people
to the pipe trades to replace its increasingly aging work force - now averaging
around 50 years.
“We have to get more young blood into this industry,” Hite told participants at
that Tripartite Conference. He noted that the average age of UA apprentices -
now 27 - has been rising. He then revealed something that may shine a ray of
hope on the industry’s future.
According to Hite, about half of the UA’s apprenticeship applicants are college
graduates. Many of these likely are people who in earlier times would’ve
entered the trades right after high school. Instead, they were steered by peer
pressure and school counselors onto a college path, only to discover that B.A.
degrees are a dime a dozen and not close to guaranteeing high pay or a
satisfying career. The pipe trades may have trouble competing against glamorous
jobs with lavish pay and plush offices, but in the real world the alternative
all too often is waiting tables or mixing drinks.
High school graduates may not understand all this until they waste some of
their youth and a hundred grand or more in pursuit of a sheepskin. But better
late than never.