Shortage of Skilled Labor, But Not Competition

BY BOB MIODONSKI of CONTRACTORs staff HUGE RETAILERS sell plumbing, heating and cooling products to do-it-yourselfers. Utilities enter the p-h-c market aided by rate-payer subsidies. A concern grows over a shortage of skilled labor. Onerous government regulations both stifle and spur business opportunities for p-h-c contractors. These topics may sound as if they pertain to news stories in this months

BY BOB MIODONSKI of CONTRACTOR’s staff

HUGE RETAILERS sell plumbing, heating and cooling products to do-it-yourselfers. Utilities enter the p-h-c market aided by rate-payer subsidies. A concern grows over a shortage of skilled labor. Onerous government regulations both stifle and spur business opportunities for p-h-c contractors.

These topics may sound as if they pertain to news stories in this month’s issue of CONTRACTOR. In fact, these are some of the subjects that have appeared on the front pages of CONTRACTOR since 1954.

This month, to commemorate our golden anniversary, we are publishing special articles and features that look back at the last 50 years of the plumbing-heating-cooling-piping industry. These articles can be identified with CONTRACTOR’s 50th anniversary logo.

From its inception, CONTRACTOR always has striven to report on the competitive landscape that its readers face on a daily basis. The very first issue in January 1954 published a front-page story on bid shopping, which had captured the attention of Congress and, later that year, President Eisenhower.

Six months later, CONTRACTOR ran a story under the headline, “‘Do-it-yourself’ onslaught sparks contractor debate.” And the very next month, we reported that a heating contractor was suing Sears for price “coercion.”

Sears has appeared in our news stories as a competitor to many of our readers to the present day, as has The Home Depot in more recent years. But J.C. Penney? In May 1965, CONTRACTOR reported that J.C. Penney was the “latest chain” to enter the plumbing-heating field.

Younger readers may think that competition from unregulated utilities was a phenomenon that began in the 1990s. CONTRACTOR has published front-page news on utility subsidies at least as far back as 1966.

Before that, utilities posed what might have been even a larger threat. In 1962, CONTRACTOR reported that utilities were making a stronger drive for electric heat. And in August 1965, we ran a story under the headline, “Now electrical contractors push comfort,” the prospect of which worried the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors association and hydronic heating equipment manufacturers.

Some of the trends that CONTRACTOR has reported on over the years have been closer to the mark. In February 1954, we ran a story under the headline, “Builders see all new homes as air conditioned in 10 years.” Two years later, a front-page headline read, “Women ask 112 baths at least, tell builder to lay off kitchen, they’ll pick equipment.”

Much of our reporting on news and trends in our industry has been related to new products. In April 1954 CONTRACTOR reported that the “single-lever sink faucet promises boom in faucet sales this year.” Two years later, we wrote, “Two more firms market faucets with single-lever mix control.”

Other new products were regulated into existence, most notably the 1.6 gal. per flush toilet. In 1988, CONTRACTOR reported that the “industry [was] swirling in controversy over 1.6 gpf fixtures.”

On the heating side, CONTRACTOR published a story in September 1954 on a “motorized valve [that] goes on room radiator to give room-by-room selective control.”

Not all the new technology that we’ve covered has been related strictly to the phcp industry. In 1954, we ran a story under the headline, “Is a two-way radio really practical? ‘And how!’ says the man who spent $5,100.”

As much as with products, CONTRACTOR has reported on labor news and trends over the past 50 years. In the 1950s and 1960s, many of the stories described tensions between unions and employers or open shops.

As early as 1960, however, we started to report that “apprentices in training drop by 606 (authorities concerned),” and a shortage of skilled manpower has been an industry issue that we’ve covered ever since. In June 1971, we ran a story under the headline, “Pride in workmanship disappearing in p-h-c.”

If you thought that the copper and steel shortages that we reported on this past April were particularly severe, you may want to check out the front-page headline from September 1955: “Industry tells woes to Ike: ‘Worst crisis’ faces copper (seek metal from government stockpile to bring relief from supply deadlock).”

TAGS: Hydronics