The topic of the labor shortage and how to recruit younger generations into the trades has been covered time and time again, and for good reason, in CONTRACTOR and Contracting Business! This is an issue that is not going away anytime soon.
It’s an ongoing struggle for a career in plumbing to appeal to the masses. I believe part of the problem is that people are just not aware of how many career paths this trade can lead to.
The Plumber Protects the Health of the Nation. If you are reading this article, chances are you have seen this historical poster before because you have a career in the mechanical contracting industries. However, how many people outside of these industries have ever heard of this phrase or seen this poster?
This poster was created in the early 1930s by American Standard. Since the creation of the poster, plumbing technology has come a long way. It’s safe to say that consumers recognize that the plumbing systems in their homes are essential to their family’s health and safety — especially when there is a plumbing problem and a plumber is needed to come to the rescue (and especially since the Flint, Mich., water crisis — more on that is to come).
However, plumbers do so much more than service work — they have careers in many different arenas. Yet, the common person doesn’t realize this, thus, the perception of the mechanical trades needs to be changed! How do we begin to change the perception?
Personal examples within the industry
First of all, let’s take a look at Viega employees — many have their own stories of how their mechanical backgrounds put them on great career paths. A couple years ago, I was invited to Viega's training center in Nashua, N.H. During the trip I met and Jason McKinnon, manager of training and technical support, Andy Richards, product trainer, and Mark Parent, director of product management heating and cooling.
Richards worked as a Master Plumber before working at Viega, and has many positive opinions about a career in plumbing. Richards became a product trainer at Viega in 2010. “I saw the opening for the trainer position with Viega and after using their products for years as a plumber, I felt the position would be a good fit,” explained Richards. “I like speaking in front of groups, especially about topics (plumbing and heating) I have a lot of experience in.
You could work for a management company as an in-house plumber or even own your own company,
— said Andy Richards
“The work is rewarding if you like a sense of accomplishment and like to see a finished product as the result of your labor,” added Richards. “Most successful plumbers will earn a similar salary that someone with an average college degree could earn. If you are willing to work hard you can make good money.”
Richards pointed out that there are many different aspects of the trade that someone can get involved in, such as new construction, residential, commercial or industrial sectors.
“You could work for a management company as an in-house plumber or even own your own company,” said Richards. “Someone could get into estimating for a company once they have learned the business side and understand how to bid jobs or you could become a project foreman and lead a crew. One could even go into sales and/or the training side of the business if you work for a large plumbing or mechanical company, a wholesaler or even a manufacturer.”
People outside of the mechanical industries do not realize many plumbers are well educated and many of them are successful business people.
Without first working as a plumber I probably would have not taken the career path I did,
— said Mark Parent
Parent’s career in plumbing started out in the field as a plumber, and then evolved to working for a manufacturer in a technical capacity to sales management, training and product management.
“If I was to enter the plumbing business today I will further my education beyond the field knowledge and find every advantage I could to become successful as the business world is changing and becoming more and more competitive,” explained Parent.
“I have actually worked longer in the corporate world than in the field as a plumber, however, without first working as a plumber I probably would have not taken the career path I did,” added Parent.
As you can see, it is crucial we continue to promote the plumbing industry by pointing out these benefits of a career in the field.
“Many of the people that I have encountered in sales, technical and training positions all have backgrounds beginning in the field,” explained McKinnon. “The installation and service of plumbing and heating provides experience that is most easily learned by doing and allows the opportunity for the individual to continue to advance in the field or transition into another role within the industry, utilizing their years of real-world experience.”
We all need to be storytellers
Passing success stories on to students, parents and teachers, is an important way of changing the perception of the mechanical trades. This happened to be one of the topics discussed at the HARDI Conference in December 2015.
Bryan D. Albrecht, Ed.D., President & Chief Executive Officer of Gateway Technical College discussed the workforce shortage and recruiting issues during the session “Developing Your Talent Pipeline.”
Gateway Technical College is located in Southeast Wisconsin and since 1911, the college has provided innovative strategies to support student success, community development and workforce solutions. Under President Albrecht, Gateway has established a national leadership position in the development of business and education partnerships.
“It’s important to develop a college connection,” said Albrecht. “We have a full-time faculty person from the college in the high schools talking about our program. This goes deeper than career day. We have many career activities and work with the Boys and Girls Club, Boy Scouts, etc. Our recruiting efforts are in engineering, IT, STEM, and science courses in high schools. We also need to educate high school teachers about our industry too, so they can apply their curriculum to these types of careers.”
“We have a full-time faculty person from the college in the high schools talking about our program. This goes deeper than career day,
— said Bryan D. Albrecht
A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Gateway Technical College and take a tour of the labs and it is indeed impressive. If other schools can apply the same grassroots efforts as Gateway, the industry would have a foot in the door to change the outdated perception of the mechanical trades.
Also during HARDI, John Lanier, COO of North American Technician Excellence (NATE), spoke about training, certification and the workforce shortage. He pointed out that the industry needs to address the workforce shortage on the local level. (This happens to be exactly what Gateway Technical College is doing.)
“The solution for the recruiting problem is grass roots — a bottom up effort,” said Lanier. “Also, we need to educate contractors and put a good training/certification program in place. We need to give the contractor confidence to hire someone with no experience and train them. We need to address this locally too. Gateway Technical College does a great job of connecting the dots.”
Many manufacturers are lending a hand to help figure out what can be done to elevate the perception of having a career in the trades and promote the mechanical trades to new blood.
While attending the session “Training, Certification & The Workforce Shortage” I met Renee Joseph, VP of channel sales and marketing operations at Johnson Controls, Inc. She wrote a whitepaper titled, Elevating the HVACR industry: Promoting exciting careers to diverse prospects can help address staffing shortages. This whitepaper is an excellent read for anyone that wants to wrap their head around what needs to be done to recruit. The whitepaper includes data on the workforce, information on the key players in the HVACR industry, and what the industry’s core recruitment message is. Even though this whitepaper is specifically about HVACR, this is beneficial to anyone who runs a plumbing business too.
The students were, for the most part, engaged and asked lots of questions,
— said Dave Yates
Some industry professionals have taken promoting the trades into their own hands. For example, CONTRACTOR’s columnist Dave Yates has done just that and at his alma mater, Central York High School! Junior Achievement (JA) asked him if he would be willing to participate in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Summit as a career panelist.
During this event, ninth-grade students rotate through 45-minute exercises that include scientific experiments, assembly of technology devices, engineering applications and mathematical applications. There are a handful of career panelists that take part in this. Each panelist has eight minutes to talk about their educational background, describe their jobs, provide a pay range that can be expected, and detail how STEM applies to their jobs.
Dave has participated in two of these STEM Summits, the most recent one this fall. With only eight minutes to spare, Dave was able to talk about his background and utilize props to take the students through a real-world exercise of STEM from a job he worked on in 2009. Dave wrote about this experience in the December issue of CONTRACTOR.
He concludes his column by writing, “The students were, for the most part, engaged and asked lots of questions. Hopefully we opened their eyes a wee bit wider regarding the diversity of careers available.”
As Dave so eloquently wrote, that is what the industry needs to do – open people’s eyes wider (change their perception) regarding a career in the mechanical trades. I think we have a great start already based on what manufacturers, associations and individuals are doing. Let’s keep the momentum going!
Want to discuss this topic in person? Be sure to attend Comfortech 2016 in Philadelphia, Sept. 19-22. There will be a 1/2-day recruiting workshop, plus a panel discussion about recruiting and training.