Apprenticeships need support of entire industry

(Fifth in a five-part series) THE PLUMBING industry needs wholesalers and manufacturers as well as contractors to combat a critical shortage of skilled labor, industry educators say. The dual challenge is to attract more people to the field and then to deliver the right training for fast-changing technologies. Progress is being made, as evidenced by the story of second-year plumbing apprentice Brian

(Fifth in a five-part series)

THE PLUMBING industry needs wholesalers and manufacturers as well as contractors to combat a critical shortage of skilled labor, industry educators say. The dual challenge is to attract more people to the field and then to deliver the right training for fast-changing technologies.

Progress is being made, as evidenced by the story of second-year plumbing apprentice Brian Whitehead, who has been featured in this series. Whitehead works at Atomic Plumbing & Drain Cleaning in Virginia Beach, Va., for Jim Steinle, 2005 chairman of the PHCC Educational Foundation's Plumbing Apprentice and Journeyman Training Committee.

Whitehead says he was raised with a respect for the trades, and he was mentored by a caring teacher while still in high school. That teacher had developed a positive relationship with Steinle who says he built his business by sponsoring apprentices and investing what it takes to retain his highly trained talent.

While you could ask how the industry attracts more young people such as Brian Whitehead, a better question might be: How does the industry attract more mentors and sponsors?

Show them the money
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 for plumbers, noting the difference between a four-or five-year paid apprenticeship vs. four or five years of student loans.

Adding that money is one thing and respect is another, Anderson acknowledges that prospects need to see more success stories.

Skill competitions are highly visible ways to showcase and attract talent in much the same way other young people might excel on the football field or debating team. The Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association, Skills USA, and Associated Builders and Contractors are among the organizations that host state or regional competitions that feed into national contests sponsored by manufacturers and promoted to the media.

Steinle says the competitions also motivate his apprentices to complete the full four-year training program, instead of stopping after attaining the minimum training required to sit for the journey-level licensing test.

"That's just two years in Virginia," Steinle says. "I tell my guys like Brian in their first or second year that if they hang in there, they can enter the state competition."

The 2006 Plumbing Apprenticeship Contest will be held Sept. 28 in conjunction with the PHCC-National Association's annual convention in Chicago.

Industry's role
The PHCC Educational Foundation has been updating its plumbing apprentice training manuals and has joined forces with the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, Air Conditioning Contractors of America and Refrigeration Service Engineers Society to offer a plumbing and HVACR instructor workshop in April geared toward improving the quality of instruction in apprentice programs across the country.

"We need to pull these programs up by their bootstraps," says Gerry Kennedy, chief operating officer of the PHCC Educational Foundation.

The PHCC Educational Foundation can help contractor members under-stand how and why to sponsor apprentices. Steinle says he has actively supported the Foundation's apprentice program, in part to give back to the industry, but also it's good business.

A well-trained workforce enables Steinle to command a price premium for his service and repair business based in the Tidewater area of Virginia, he says. Tax credits are available in some states to help contractors offset training costs.

"Wholesalers and manufacturers can be helping out as well," Kennedy adds. "There are apprentice programs that would benefit from their facilities, business and marketing savvy, as well as their financial support."

The Foundation welcomes product donations from manufacturers to support apprentice training, he says. Interested manufacturers should contact the Foundation through the Foundation area of PHCC's Website at www.phccweb.org

The industry can also support the apprentice classroom training by steering prospects to apply for the scholarships offered by the PHCC Educational Foundation and its industry partners. Scholarships applications for 2006 can be downloaded and printed from the PHCC Website as well.

Benefits of hiring apprentices

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Building a Skilled Workforce for the 21st Century,” contractors that hire apprentices will see the following benefits:

  • Decreases employee turnover;
  • Enhances problem-solving capabilities and versatility of workforce;
  • Increases productivity by cultivating a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce;
  • Enhances employee relations by developing a collaborative commitment to achievement; and
  • Attracts high-quality applicants who are motivated to succeed.