Contractormag 3010 Wages2

Why plumbing contractors do not pay based on living wage

April 13, 2016
When did our prospective workforce become so divorced from reality? How did this concept of paying people wages that they do not deserve for work of which they are incapable (at first) of performing come about?  Almost every person who enters the mechanical trades as a green apprentice is a net liability to the company that hires him. 
Photo: iStock/ThinkStock.

An anecdotal conversation in a recent column garnered a few emails from millennials, who felt that a plumbing contractor I alluded to, who had said that he found the members of their generation, generally, unfit for hire into the trade, was unfairly painting them as slackers. 

One letter in particular crystallized the sentiment for all. The crux of the writer's argument was that he wasn't being paid a 'living wage' for so hard a job as learning to be a plumber, and that if the contractor spoken of in my column would simply pay higher wages his problem would be solved by a plethora of young millennials just beating down his door to go to work for him.


The flaw in the writer's argument is as clear as it could possibly be. Apparently, somewhere along the last 50 or so years, we seem to have lost the idea of value, and many people are so unaware of what a business must do to turn a profit (thereby remaining in business...duh!) that the idea of being paid what one is worth has become “I must be paid a living wage” regardless of the benefit that they provide to their employer.

When did our prospective workforce become so divorced from reality? How did this concept of paying people wages that they do not deserve for work of which they are incapable (at first) of performing come about? Have we really fallen so far?

Here's the thing — almost every person who enters the mechanical trades as a raw, or green, apprentice is a net liability to the company that hires him (as long as we are trying to be politically correct here, use of the term “he,”, “his” or “him” is used to connote gender neutral description). 

For the first few months, in most cases, and sometimes much longer, a green helper spends the majority of his time learning. In other words, he is being paid to learn. The company makes no profit on his labor, but is betting on the long term success as his education and skill level bear fruit. 

Within that time frame many things happen in the life of the new hire, and not all of them good. Simple things like cutting pipe to the wrong length (usually when it's the last length you have), not priming PVC pipe, putting a nail or screw through a pipe while trying to install a strap or hanger are common.

More egregious incidents occur as well, such as dropping an expensive china fixture or even burning a building or house down while learning to solder can, and do, occur more often than one would think. All the while the newbie is drawing wages and not producing a tangible profit or benefit to the company.

In business, expenses are offset by profits. In the end, the profits should be a bit more than the total expenses. That way the business continues to progress and everyone continues to get paid. Eventually as successful companies grow, wages increase across the board, but are still in line with current industry averages.

Management must weight many factors when determining what a starting employee will be paid, and for how long. They must consider such expenses as the various payroll taxes and insurance liability premiums which, when added to the base pay of the prospective employee, constitute the money that their company can afford to invest in a new hire.

How long the business will pay an apprentice the base wage depends almost entirely on the apprentice. The more he learns, the better his skill set, the faster he moves up the wage ladder. Some companies have a structured series of predetermined raises built in to their employee programs. Larger companies that have human resources departments codify these benchmark periods and they are pretty much set in stone. Smaller companies are more likely to depend on the performance of the employee before giving raises.

The way it has always worked up to now is, if an apprentice's abilities increase, his usefulness to the company also increases and subsequently so do his wages. After all, the objective of both the apprentice and the company is to groom the entry level employee into a journeyman.

That having been said, there is a very palpable disconnect in our culture today between prospective employees and the realities of the business we are in. The problem comes from those who expect wages that they decide are “livable” based upon social criteria instead of what companies can reasonably afford to pay for their (non) services, as well as the new hire's value to the company. 

The idea of actually working to improve their wages does not seem to get much traction in today's workforce. We have all experienced the lack of available new blood into the industry and this type of thinking, and the seemingly social acceptance of it, is one reason why.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

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