Earnings can attract plumbing apprentices

(Fourth in a series) GERRY KENNEDY RECALLS an acquaintance telling him that his son, a second-year plumbing apprentice, already was earning more than one of his siblings who held a master's degree. "It didn't surprise me," says Kennedy, chief operating officer of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association Educational Foundation. "Entry-level journeyman plumbers can earn $ 50,000

(Fourth in a series)

GERRY KENNEDY RECALLS an acquaintance telling him that his son, a second-year plumbing apprentice, already was earning more than one of his siblings who held a master's degree.

"It didn't surprise me," says Kennedy, chief operating officer of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association Educational Foundation. "Entry-level journeyman plumbers can earn $ 50,000 to $60,000 a year. After a few years of experience, that can easily become $100,000 a year."

Parade magazine's annual "What people earn" survey for 2005 shows that starting salaries for journey level plumbers is not much different from the starting salaries of college graduates with bachelor's degrees.

"Everyone knows that plumbers make a lot of money, but it's an uphill battle with educators and parents to get them to see the short-term and long-term earning potential of construction trades — especially plumbing and HVAC," says Thomas W. Holdsworth, director of communications for SkillsUSA, a national notforprofit organization that serves teachers, high school students and college students preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled service occupations, including construction.

Brian Whitehead, who is entering the second year of his four-year plumbing apprenticeship, works for Jim Steinle, owner of Atomic Plumbing & Drain Cleaning in Virginia Beach, Va. (Investment in training pays dividends," December 2005, pg. 23). Ken Anderson, Whitehead's mentor and a plumbing instructor at the Virginia Beach Vocational Training Center says the industry should not be shy about promoting the earning potential.

"Kids see this (apprenticeship) package and they get excited," Anderson says.

The long-term earning potential is equally appealing, especially given the anticipated demand during the next 10 years, he adds. Anderson notes that parents get excited too when they look at a four-or five-year paid-apprenticeship vs. four or five years of student loans.

"When I see a kid like Brian completing an apprenticeship, I think, wow, if that guy had gone to college, he'd be in as much in debt as he is earning annually right now," Anderson says.

Money is one thing, image is another. The image of plumbers carries its own challenges. The negative stereotype lives on in large part because many people have no idea what plumbers actually do, Anderson says.

"People don't see what construction has become. They don't see the success stories," he says.

"Sometimes it's nasty, but I find it really rewarding," Whitehead adds, conceding that plumbing had not been his first career choice either.

Once he picked up his first plumbing textbook in Anderson's class, however, he never looked back, Whitehead says. That is why the Virginia Beach Vocational Training Center introduces its high school students to all the construction trades.

"I'll ask 80 students at the start of the semester how many want to be plumbers, and maybe one or two hands go up," Anderson says. "By the end, we get 15 or 16 who put their hands up."

PHCC's Kennedy notes: "Plumbing has really become a high-tech career. It's not even the same career it was 20 years ago. We want to do a better job of getting in front of parents and school counselors with this information."

Whitehead's sponsor, Jim Steinle, was the 2005 volunteer chairman of the PHCC Educational Foundation's Plumbing Apprentice and Journeyman Training Committee. He regularly visits high schools, as do all PHCC chapter apprentice chairs. They try to meet with students and parents, and stock the guidance counselor's library with information and resources about plumbing-heating-cooling careers.

Steinle says he has had success using the information contained in the PHCC National Auxiliary's publication, " Constructing Your Future, Plumbing & HVAC Careers." (available at www.phccweb.org). Anderson says he engages his students by showing the Modern Marvels episode of "

Plumbing: The Arteries Of Civilization," which aired on the History Channel.

Next: How contractors, wholesalers and manufacturers can support plumbing-heating-cooling apprenticeships.

(Other parts of this can be found online at www.contractormag.com and Plumber-Protects.com.)