CONTRACTOR MAGAZINE published an interesting article on the federal Government Accountability Office study on apprenticeship ("Union apprentices more likely to finish training: GAO," October, pg. 1). It reveals to the Plumbing-Heat-ing-Cooling Contractors - National Association that more needs to be done in our industry to develop a productive workforce, whether through the traditional apprenticeship program or some high-standard alternative that achieves similar results.
Most like to make this a union/non-union issue, but we at PHCC see this as an industry issue. The United Association has done a great job of taking apprenticeship training into the 21st century. PHCC is likewise investing much of its resources into apprenticeship training that is developed by the PHCC Educational Foundation.
It would be helpful if the rest of the industry that is not within the ranks of PHCC or signatory to a UA agreement would take some responsibility for training the future workforce. Some organizations and employers do, but unfortunately we have too many in our industry willing to let the "other guy" fund all the training. They then try to steal the workers away after training financed by someone else is complete. Those who suck the available manpower from the industry are helping to dry up our workforce. If everyone accepted the responsibility to train, we would be in better shape.
It also would be helpful if all students would feel a responsibility to complete their training. Granted, sometimes it may be difficult to expect this of someone just starting out in a trade or industry. These students may not realize the importance of completing the training, especially when it is not required.
In many states, for example, a technician can be licensed by completing a number of years of service without completing an apprenticeship program. This is a green light for technicians to leave the rigors of training as soon as they feel they can do the work or pass a licensing exam. Are those without complete training adequately prepared to do today's installations? Or does this produce a workforce that will know how to do certain installations, but when faced with a new technology, will not have the technical background to properly install the new technology?
We used to have those who could figure out any installation because they had the basic background knowledge they learned from a well-rounded training that comes from programs like those offered by the UA or PHCC. We definitely need to figure out a way to stress to students the importance of completing their training.
In the end, it is up to the contractor to decide if apprenticeship training is the way to go, or if there is another alternative. Some trades have gone from the traditional journeyman/apprentice to lead person and laborers. This is seen in some areas where unions are not as prevalent. If competition is the driver, then contractors will be forced to find the cheapest way to perform their contracts. If quality and value are factored in, then contractors will be challenged to find training that provides such value. Ultimately, the building owner or customer will decide.
Of course, PHCC is all in favor of apprenticeship training as the best way to train tomorrow's workforce. Besides providing skilled workers, professional apprenticeship programs can help attract employees who are looking for advancement into the plumbing and HVACR industry. This is very important, considering the significant shortage of skilled workers in our industry today. What would happen in the future if there are no workers to complete the projects? Some contractors will see an opportunity to reap large profits because they can name their price with low-paid workers, but this is a shortsighted approach to a workforce shortage. The PHCC and UA's emphasis on training is definitely more of a long-term approach that could dent the growing scarcity of plumbing and HVAC technicians.
At PHCC we are fortunate to work with the UA, as well as with the open-shop contractors, to address workforce issues. This collaboration is good for the industry because the shortage of people in the workforce will be our biggest challenge in the future.
If you are a contractor reading this article, ask yourself if you are doing enough to build a future workforce. It is your responsibility to work with fellow contractors in PHCC, in the UA or in another organization to build a qualified workforce that will ensure a future of high standards, skilled expertise and professionalism for all.
Ike Casey is executive vice president of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association. He can be reached at 800/533-7694.