The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that U.S. businesses will see a 60% employee turnover rate in the next 10 years. Plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical trades will see 20% job growth over that same time period. Yet skilled trade workers are the most difficult for employers to find.
The average age for a plumber or heating technician is about 55, and many retire in their late 50s or early 60s because of health issues. But young people are not flocking to the trades as careers. Instead, they are lured into colleges with the promise of high-paying jobs in business, law, health care and the computer sciences.
For many contractors in the PHC industry, those statistics may not be new to them. During the many industry meetings I’ve attended in recent years, the lack of qualified, skilled workers has been the hot topic of conversation.
What can the industry do to attract the workers it needs to build homes, install plumbing and heating systems, maintain and repair such systems, while protecting the health and safety of the nation?
Back in 2003, I wrote a series of articles on recruiting for the trades. The first part dealt with recruiting immigrant labor, the second part on recruiting women and the last part was on recruiting youth. The same issues I hear today were part of the conversation then — high school counselors pushing students to go to college, the demise of vocational and technical schools and little interest by students in careers where they work with their hands.
Today, industry groups are becoming more proactive in getting the message out to the public, as well as school adminstrators, what the trades are all about.
Exploring the trades
The Nexstar Legacy Foundation started its Explore the Trades program in January 2014 with its website, http://www.explorethetrades.org/— which is a career resource for young people to find out about the plumbing, HVAC and electrical trades. It includes information on what it’s like to work in the trades, statistics and employment outlooks. Last year, the site had more than 40,000 unique visitors, notes Renee Cardarelle, the foundation’s executive director. As of February 2015, the site had another 31,000 unique visitors.
“We’ve been working on our visibility with people who have connections with young people, such as school counselors, superintendents and board members,” she says. “We want to increase the awareness that the trades can provide viable careers. We feel that the general public, as well as those who run our school systems, don’t understand that these are areas students can go into and have a lucrative, life-long career. It’s an uphill struggle because we’re trying to change the culture.”
The foundation is bringing its career resources to school counselors — it even attended a national school counselor conference last July in Florida and talked to about 300 counselors. Cardarelle recently attended the national school board conference and handed out information to about 400 school board members, superintendents and other school administrators.
“Part of the awareness is giving school educators the information they need to give to students who are not interested in going to college,” she says. “Only 6% of students are looking into careers in the trades — all the trades, not just the PHCE industry.”
The Nexstar Legacy Foundation’s focus this year is to bring more tools to the business and technical schools to help them attract more students and more young people. It hopes to have a rollout of a tool kit in the fall. Targeted marketing in Florida, Minnesota and Massachusetts will bring technical colleges and businesses together. And the foundation is working with K-12 schools in those communities so students can find that career path into this industry.
The Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors — National Association and the PHCC Educational Foundation also see an opportunity to change the viewpoint of school administrators regarding work in the trades.
“Realizing the industry workforce shortage is staggering, a joint PHCC and PHCC Educational Foundation Workforce Development Task Force is focusing on the best steps to take to attract and train the next generation of skilled workers,” notes Kevin Tindall, president of PHCC — National Association and task force chair.
The PHCC Educational Foundation is working with Cengage Learning to develop short pre-apprenticeship courses for both plumbing and HVAC, says Roger Peugeot, PHCC Educational Foundation chair. These courses, which will appear on Cengage’s Ed2Go career training platform, will introduce prospective apprentices to the trades and emphasize the basic knowledge and skills they will need for success in the trades. The courses are being developed now and should launch by next spring.
Task force ideas include developing a special career website; providing a tool kit to help contractors work with secondary and post-secondary educational programs; formally partnering with other organizations to reach parents, students and educators; partnering with manufacturers and suppliers to support existing and new instructional programs; and leveraging industry resources to present a positive industry image and awareness message.
The negative industry image has been a hard one to overcome. Potty-themed humor and butt-crack jokes still plague the plumbing industry, even as it has worked hard to portray a professional image. The trades are seen as behind the times, and plumbers and mechanical contractors are not seen as technically savvy.
Internships attract students
The Mechanical Contractors Association of America has a big initiative this year to dispel this world view of mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractors.
“The MEP component of construction is leading a lot of the virtual construction design evolution, such as building information modeling, of the construction industry,” notes Dennis Langley, who oversees the MCAA’s Mechanical Contracting Education & Research Foundation internship grants program. “We’re embracing that at MCAA and getting our members up-to-speed on all the new technologies and tying that into the annual Student Chapter Summit.
“We see this as a great recruiting tool. We fight image all the time, trying to dispel an image that doesn’t reflect where the industry is today. This is not your grandfather’s mechanical system. We’re now technology leaders. Generals qualify whole construction teams based on what their mechanicals can bring to the table.”
MCAA has 50 Student Chapters at colleges and universities all over the country. The biggest draw to these chapters is the annual Student Chapter Competition, where chapters compete on an actual project that’s been constructed.
“The project is announced at the annual Student Chapter Summit and teams are given 2 1/2 months to prepare a professional proposal that lays out the schedule, the estimate, all the various things you need to make that project work,” says Ann Mattheis, who runs MCAA’s Career Development Program. “A group of three to four contractor members judge the competition entries. And the top four best-scoring teams will present an oral version of their proposals at our annual convention.”
MCAA also named 2015 as the Year of the Intern. About seven years ago, the association wanted to attract more students and more schools to the Student Chapter program, Mattheis notes. With the help of the MCERF, all MCAA members were offered the opportunity to apply for an internship grant for interns that they’d hired.
“The internship program was very successful, but we upped the ante as we heard from faculty advisers that the best way to attract young people to the industry is through an internship, where students really learn what mechanical contracting is about,” she adds. “If you hire that student through his college years, you’ll have a seasoned professional ready to take over when someone retires.”
MCAA used to cap the internship grants at one per company, no matter how many interns a company hired. But this year it is giving out grants for as many interns as an MCAA member company hires, as well as increasing the amount of each grant from $1,200 to $1,500.
“Our goal for Year of the Intern was to double the number of interns and we’ve already done that,” Langley says. “We’re close to 200 internships that we’ve done this year, well over what we did last year.”
It has created a website — www.mcaagreatfutures.org— for students to post their resumes, their photographs and a profile about what they want to do for an internship or a full-time job, Mattheis says. The site has a section on chapter news, tips and resources to help students search for a job more effectively, as well as information on the mechanical contracting industry.
Jimmy Hiller, president of Nashville, Tenn.-based Hiller Plumbing, Heating & Cooling, took matters into his own hands and bought a technical school.
“The biggest problem we have is trying to find qualified technicians,” he says. “There’s not a lot of kids coming out of high school and getting into the trades anymore. People don’t know the type of living they can make in the trades. We in the industry have done a poor job of explaining that to young people.
“The No. 1 problem everyone talks about is that people can’t find jobs. They’re not looking for the right type of jobs — plenty of plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical jobs are out there. But everybody wants to sit behind a desk and play on the computer.”
Total Tech (http://www.totaltechschool.com) is the school where Hiller’s HVAC technicians were trained. Hiller, a member of Plumbers’ Success International, bought out the former owner of the school. At the same time, he bought a new 77,000-sq.-ft. building, part of which houses the new Total Tech school. In addition to HVAC classes, the first plumbing class of nine students started earlier this spring. The school is capable of handling 12 plumbing students, 14 HVAC students and 12 electrical students. Hiller intends to add electrical classes, too. A full-time recruiter keeps in touch with area high schools to make sure the school and Hiller Plumbing are represented at all career days and job fairs, as well as the area military base.
Students spend one month in class, then go on jobsites. Once a plumbing student gets the basic knowledge in class, Hiller says, he works on a repipe crew for a month, taking what he’s learned and using that knowledge in people’s homes. Then the student moves to a drain-cleaning truck for a month, then a tune-up/home inspection truck for a month. At that point, Hiller is ready to bring that person on as a full-time plumber making service calls.
“When you have a shortage of technicians, you end up overworking them to keep up with the demand,” he adds. “If I can produce 20 plumbers a year out of my school, that would change my business.”
In the Chicago area, the local plumbers union is working the local Boy Scouts councils to educate them about the trades. Thomas Jennrich, instructor in charge, Plumber’s Joint Apprenticeship Committee at the Plumber’s Local Union 130 training center in Volo, Ill., began working with the Boy Scouts merit badge program in 2010, starting with the Northeast Council in Highland Park, Ill.
“We looked at the requirements of the plumbing merit badge and set up stations in our training area based off those requirements,” he explains. “We host two programs a year — one in the spring and one in the fall.”
The apprentices at the school man the stations and get the unique experience of mentoring and teaching the Scouts. (You can find out about the Boy Scouts merit badges at www.scouting.org/meritbadges.aspx.) Jennrich and his staff started out with about 45 Scouts per session, ranging in age from 12 to 17, but the group varies in size during each session.
“The Scouts have a little knowledge because at their weekly meetings they have to do their homework before coming in,” Jennrich says. “Then they are prepared. For example, one station is plumbing materials they have to identify — a copper tee, a PVC tee, etc. It’s all spelled out in their requirements what they need to learn. Then they go around to the different stations and perform those tasks. We also added a few things because of technology, such as sewer cameras.”
Jennrich encourages the parents to stay and see what their kids are doing, which educates them about the plumbing trade as well as what a union apprenticeship program is like.
“They’re impressed by how our apprentices interact with their kids,” he adds. “This generation of kids, they think all that plumbers do is work on toilets. Many parents at the career fairs pull their kids away from the trades, they have no clue what we do in today’s world. They’re looking back to the 1960s when you had to know someone to get into a union. That you don’t have to have a mind to do what the trades do. We’re trying to educate not only students and parents, but high school counselors.”
Working with kids and introducing them to the plumbing, heating and cooling trades can be a great recruiting tool. Most kids by the time they reach middle school already have set on career choices.
“Mentoring students of all ages is a great thing to do,” Tindall notes. “It really helps to share your passion for our profession. Whether you participate in a career day, visit a local Boy Scouts troop or invite students and young adults to ‘shadow’ you for a day, you are doing your part to spread the word about all the great careers our industry offers. It’s also important to educate your elected officials about the critical need for career and technical education and workforce development program funding.”
Another avenue that the Nexstar Legacy Foundation is working on in 2015 is to help businesses be ready for this influx of young people.
“The standard is to find experienced people to bring into a trades business,” Cardarelle explains. “But it’s not going to be viable for growth if they don’t have a way of getting young people into their businesses. This is a critical area of development. In 10 years, they’re not going to have those experienced people anymore. If they’re not ready, they’re going to be behind the ball. They’re not going to survive.”