Speakers from management and labor focused on how to continue to attract qualified people to the plumbing industry, union and trade associations Feb. 29 - March 2 during the Union-Affiliated Contractors’ Unity 2016 Conference in Pompano Beach, Fla.

“Finding good people is the biggest challenge for our customers. There is a shortage now for plumbers and HVAC techs,” said Bruce Carnevale, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Bradford White Corp. “We have a skills gap in this industry. We need to continue to talk about it, and we need to do something about it. We need to make our industry cool again by talking about electronics and other new products and technology. We have enough jobs but we need to train people to take these jobs.”

Attending the conference were: representatives of UAC, which is an enhanced service group of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors — National Association for members that employ union plumbers; executives and business managers from the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters; association executives; and manufacturers.

UAC Chair Bob Melko of Bishop Plumbing in Des Plaines, Ill., agreed training is important: “We have to educate our technicians to be smarter than consumers.”

Dustin Bowerman, Bradford White’s director of technical services, discussed the training opportunities available in facilities such as the UA’s mobile classrooms for union plumbers and the water heater manufacturer’s own International Technical Excellence Center — or iTEC — in Middleville, Mich.

“The do-it-yourselfer will be challenged by new water heater technology that will force the installation back into our industry,” he said.  “A new 40-gal. water heater may not fit into the same space as the old 40-gal. water heater.”

During a “Market Recovery Strategies” session, Purdue University Associate Professor Kirk Alter called for contractors and labor to do more to attract qualified people to their companies and union halls.

“The construction industry is 81% male and 19% female; we have to correct that gender imbalance. The union plumbing market share is 11.3% and falling,” he said. “The market recovery must be twofold for the UA and for contractors — you both have to be successful. Saying the same thing over again — ‘we do the job better, we train better’ — will not get it done. We need to differentiate our companies and our segment of industry.”

Like Carnevale, Alter said the plumbing industry must make itself more attractive to younger people by emphasizing technologies such as video, building information modeling and even drones.

“The world is losing patience with the construction industry,” he said. “We’re not going to attract people into industry by boring them but by inspiring them.”

Offering solutions to problems such as the nation’s deteriorating piping infrastructure is another way to appeal to young people, Alter said. Earlier during Unity 2016, UA Director of Plumbing Services Tom Bigley had cited the volunteer work done by 300 union plumbers to install faucets and other plumbing supplies in homes in Flint, Mich.

“The unions used to be heroes,” Alter said. “We have to become heroes again.” The PHCC — NA also is working to attract more members, new Executive Vice President Michael Copp told Unity 2016 attendees. The association has seen 3.64% growth to almost 3,000 members with the goal of doubling membership in the next four years.

In a special ceremony, Melko received an achievement award for his years of service to the UAC and the plumbing industry. UAC Vice Chair Tom Gent of France Mechanical Corp. in Edwardsville, Ill., presented the award.

Unity 2017 will take place in Las Vegas with details to come.