WASHINGTON — Everyone’s in favor of workforce development — how can one not be? The plumbing industry needs to fill 180,000 jobs, the HVAC industry a similar number, and the construction industry as a whole has 800,000 unfilled jobs, said Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors — National Association Executive Vice President Michael Copp. Yet despite workforce development and career and technical education (otherwise known as CTE) being a motherhood-and-apple-pie issue, getting the resources needed to turn prospective employees into plumbers and service technicians is difficult.
The industry’s leading contractors — the ones who consistently volunteer and show up to serve the industry — came here in mid-June to participate in PHCC-National Association’s annual Legislative Conference. The contractors came to lobby Congress on energy-efficiency regulations, tax reform and workforce development, but it was the workforce issue that dominated conversations with legislators and their staffers.
The contractors moved through a Capitol Hill area dominated by a heavily armed police presence following the horrific shooting at an Alexandria, Virginia, ball field that wounded Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise and three others. Washington was noticeably on edge.
Calling the issue the “workforce time bomb,” the contractors sought reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, that’s currently funded at $1.2 billion. During the last Congress, the House of Representatives reauthorized the law with a $15 million increase, but the session ended before the bill could move through the Senate.
CONTRACTOR accompanied the Californians through the House and Senate office buildings in a contingent that included, among others, PHCC — National Association President Patrick Wallner, Wallner Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning, Redding, California, California PHCC President Arnie Rodio, Pace Setter Plumbing Inc., Sacramento, California, Terrance Risse, president of Iron Mechanical in Sacramento, EVP Copp and PHCC’s Director of Government Relations Mark Riso.
Lobbying in favor of CTE funds puts one dead center in the conflicting positions and priorities of both Congress and the Administration. Most career training and apprenticeship funds are administered through either the Department of Labor or the Department of Education, and the Administration has called for budget cuts for both departments.
Reporting by the Association for Career and Technical Education CTE Policy Watch Blog said that the White House has proposed cuts to the Perkins Act of $168 million. ACTE also reported:
Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta appeared before the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee last week. In his prepared remarks, Sec. Acosta emphasized the value of apprenticeships. “High quality apprenticeships enable employers to be involved in the training of their future workforce so they can be sure new hires possess the skills needed to do the job,” said Acosta. However, the budget proposal would cut the apprenticeship grant program, currently operated as the ApprenticeshipUSA initiative, by $5 million.
Brian Moulton, counsel for Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), co-chair of the Senate CTE Caucus, said that the Senate would probably write its own version of the Perkins Act reauthorization, although Riso pointed out that PHCC prefers the House version of the bill. Moulton also noted that in the last Congress Perkins got caught up in unrelated Department of Education squabbles so nothing got done.
Copp attempted to redirect the conversation to make workforce about infrastructure — which it is. CONTRACTOR asked attendees about President Donald Trump’s infrastructure proposals and they expressed doubts about whether there will be enough workers to perform the work.
Copp made the point that infrastructure is also below ground in the form of water supply and wastewater disposal. We need to change the conversation that parents have with their children to make apprenticeship and technical education the first choice, not the second choice, he said.
Moulton said that he didn’t know if the Senate would hold hearings on the Perkins bill or if it would go straight to markup. The contractors left Baldwin’s office not knowing more than when they went in.
“We need a cultural pivot about how we define education,” Copp told Drew Spence, a legislative aide to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). Patrick Wallner told Spence that his firm, which employs 200 and bills about $40 million, is limited in the amount of new work it can take on because he can’t find more people. The group discussed tax policy and Spence said he believes that a vote on the American Health Care Act will “happen quickly,” but the group leaves the office much the same way that they left Baldwin’s.
Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA) is a supporter of both STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and CTE. Knight made a cameo with the group for photos, then rushed out the door, asking an aide, “Where am I going?”
The Californians talked to Knight’s legislative assistant Courtney Y. Kum, who, unlike her peers in other offices, actually took copious notes. When that was pointed out to her, she said, “Um, that’s kind of frightening, because that’s my job.” Copp makes the point that infrastructure is both above and below ground and that if Congress passes an infrastructure bill, who would do the work?
The atmosphere is completely different at the office of Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), the only plumber in Congress. Mullin also owns HVAC and electrical contracting firms. It’s the Mullin’s 20th wedding anniversary and his wife Christie sits at his desk and their young blonde twins run around the outer office. The contractors are talking to another contractor and they all understand each other.
Mullin points out that the industry has an uphill battle persuading high school teachers and counselors to talk to students about CTE.
“We don’t have repair guys these days, we have replacement guys,” Mullin said. He noted that an idle truck for him means $220,000 in lost revenue.
The contractors leave knowing they have a staunch ally, but even he can’t promise them anything.