WHILE MANY contractors desperately need trained labor, they may not be able to make the investments of money and time necessary to meet the demand.
"It's tough for small contracting firms," says Mike Mayberry, president of Plumbing Agent and HVAC Agent, which are human resource networks of contracting firms. "They need mechanics who can go out and start earning. It's hard for small firms to pay someone for on-the-job training."
Apprentices such as Brian Whitehead are paid for their on-the-job training by the contracting firm that hires or "sponsors" them. Sponsors commit to providing on-the-job training at the 1:1 ratio of mechanic to apprentice, as seen in the profile of Whitehead's typical day in the second part of this series ("A day in the life of a plumbing apprentice," September, pg. 64).
In most states, including Virginia where Atomic Plumbing & Drain Cleaning in Virginia Beach sponsors Whitehead, apprentices' hourly rates are a percentage of average journey-man's wages for the region. As a first-year apprentice, Whitehead earned $10 an hour.
"It's comfortable," says Whitehead, who recently began his second year of apprentice training. "It pays the rent to my parents."
The rate increases with each year of Whitehead's apprenticeship. Apprentices with related experience in the field or through the military must be paid commensurate with that experience, which may vary from White-head's earnings. Such seasoned apprentices may be a more attractive option for small firms that are not able to invest the time or money on someone just starting out.
Invest is the key word, says Jim Steinle, owner of Atomic Plumbing and 2005 volunteer chairman of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association Educatioanal Foundation's Plumbing Apprentice and Journeyman Training Committee. The value of having trained employees is well documented, so Steinle invests in the training upfront and commands premium pricing when his technicians take over in the field.
"I'm strictly service and repair, so my mechanics are always in front of the homeowner," Steinle says. "Our clients are willing to pay more because they can see that we know what we're doing. They know we will fix their problem."
All of Steinle's mechanics — including Steinle himself — are former apprentices; most came through the same program as Whitehead. Some contractors also pay for the student's classroom training, which can be as low as $500 per semester in White-head's region of coastal Virginia.
"Many times the contractor and apprentice agree that the apprentice will stay on a few years after getting his journeyman's license," Steinle says.
Virginia is among several states that sweeten the incentives for contractors to pay for classroom training costs of apprentice plumbers. A state tax credit is available covering 30% of all class-room-training costs, or up to $100 annual credit per student at a private school, up to $2,500 annually. Most beneficial to contactors who are sole proprietors, the credit is allowable against individual income tax, estate tax and trust tax, as well as corporate income tax.
"Wholesalers and manufacturers can be helping out as well," notes Gerry Kennedy, chief operating officer of the PHCC Educational Foundation. "There are apprentice programs from many organizations that would benefit from their facilities, business and marketing savvy, as well as their financial support."
The industry in general can support the apprentice classroom training by steering prospects to apply for the scholarships offered by the PHCC Educational Foundation and its industry partners. Scholarship applications can be downloaded and printed from the Foundation area of PHCC's Website at www.phccweb.org
Next: The challenges in attracting and retaining new plumbing apprentices.