With proper training and education, plumbing can trump other careers.
SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR
First in a five-part series
On TV, "The Apprentice" is a steppingstone to a career and wealth in Donald Trump's real estate development firm.
In real life, apprenticeships can be steppingstones to career and wealth in the plumbing and HVAC fields, but you probably won't find 18 people vying for each position. Why? The TV show itself illustrates part of the problem. Only those armed with a four-year college degree or better need apply, even though Trump's organization couldn't possibly exist without skilled trade labor.
To be fair, the most recent " Apprentice" season did pit high school against college graduates for the coveted desk job. A college graduate won.
Such single-minded focus on college and office careers — from parents to teachers to counselors to society — is part of the problem causing today's construction industry labor shortage. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes at the top of its Web page about careers in plumbing, "Job opportunities should be excellent because not enough people are seeking training."
Brian Whitehead, 18, is entering the second year of his four-year plumbing apprenticeship, working for Jim Steinle, who is chairman of the 2005 National Apprenticeship Committee of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors-— National Association. Steinle is president of Atomic Plumbing & Drain Cleaning in Virginia Beach, Va.
70% in the study said the best jobs require a four-year college degree.
"My family has a background in working with their hands, and I knew I was good working with my hands," Whitehead says, explaining his introduction to the trades. "I didn't know anything about plumbing, but my high school offered vocational training, so I took it.
"I didn't mind hard work." Obviously, Whitehead was not your typical high school student. Construction consistently ranks close to the bottom in rankings of desirable careers, while vocational training itself implies a level of "embarrassment" according to 40% of high school students surveyed in 2003. Almost 70% in the same study said the best jobs and careers require at least a four-year college education.
Whitehead's high school wasn't typical either, because he actually had access to a vocational program in the construction trades. While vocational education is alive and well in today's high schools, the emphasis appears to be primarily on programs related to the information technology and health care fields. PHCC-NA is assisting American Standard on a research project, funded by the manufacturer, to identify and build a database of all the plumbing apprentice schools in the United States.
"I started in my junior year, and started with it all: masonry, carpentry, electrical and plumbing," Whitehead says. " I liked masonry, but hands down, I really liked plumbing best. Ever since I picked up a plumbing book in Mr. Anderson's class."
Ken Anderson, a plumbing instructor at the Virginia Beach Vocational Training Center, helped channel Whitehead's family respect for the trades into a solid career path. Anyone who has enjoyed the mentoring benefits of a caring teacher will not be surprised that the U.S. Department of Education found that teachers have the most direct impact on the earnings and benefits of vocational students.
"Mr. Anderson helped encourage me," Whitehead says.
Anderson and Steinle work closely on apprentice initiatives in the Tidewater, Va., area, with Steinle opening up his firm to give Anderson's students a taste of the real world while still in high school. Steinle hired Whitehead as an apprentice upon his graduation.
Although Whitehead thought he knew enough to skip his first year of classroom training, Steinle told him it was part of the deal — the same deal Steinle himself took on years ago, graduating in PHCC's second class of apprentices.
Next: A day in the life of a first-year apprentice.
Foundation to oversee training
On July 1, Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors — National Association transferred oversight of its training programs to the PHCC Educational Foundation.
"The Educational Foundation has much experience in providing a wide variety of business management education programs for the industry," says PHCC President Mary Garvelink. "We thought it made sense to tap into their expertise to elevate our apprentice and journeymen training program to meet the needs of the changing industry workforce."
The PHCC Board of Directors approved the transfer at its June 13-14 meeting. Two previous PHCC staff positions have been transferred to the Foundation: Apprentice and Journeyman Training Director Merry Beth Hall, and a program coordinator position that will be filled shortly.
More information is available at www.phccweb.org/technical/apprentice.cfm or by calling 800/533-7694.