Promote the plumbing trade: recruiting high school students

Aug. 12, 2014
A handful of the most recent issues in the industry, affecting all contractors, are education and training, residential fire sprinklers, green building, and lead free piping. All these issues warrant further investigation (we have done intensive articles on all these topics throughout the years). However, the one topic that intrigues me going forward is recruiting.

This months’ August issue features CONTRACTOR’s 60th anniversary, along with many of the manufacturers that have similar staying power. Happy Birthday to CONTRACTOR and congrats to all the manufacturers that have seen 50 years or more in the industry! As everyone in this industry knows, so much has changed since the first issue of CONTRACTOR was published.

A handful of the most recent issues in the industry, affecting all contractors, are education and training, residential fire sprinklers, green building, and lead free piping. All these issues warrant further investigation (we have done intensive articles on all these topics throughout the years). However, the one topic that intrigues me going forward is recruiting. To me, this is the other side of the education and training coin. In order to have contractors to further educate and train, we need to recruit talented people into the trades, especially since there will soon be a huge demand for plumbing and HVAC professionals. 

A teacher instructs a student using a mill machine. Photo credit: monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Thinkstock.

According to the article “Attract The Next Generation to the Trades” by Steve Swanson, the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics notes that for the plumbing industry alone, we will need an additional 82,300 employees on top of replacements for the number of people who will be retiring. Make sure you read Steve’s article! It’s a great opinion piece about recruiting.

CONTRACTOR columnists are also passionate about recruiting. Eric Aune had touched upon this issue, in his many of his articles. In the article “Recruiting in the Trade Industries” he brings up the idea of using a "Farm System" similar to that found in the major leagues. By using such a system, recruits fill the needed roles of delivery and shop staff or field apprentice, creating the need to create summer or seasonal employment positions to get kids primed for a career in the trades.

The perfect candidates for these positions would be senior year students. Plumbing and HVAC companies would need to partner with local high schools with the offer of desirable paying summer work for their students.

A career in skilled trades requires an aptitude for math and technology. Photo credit: monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Thinkstock.

When I was in high school, the school I went to did have a system such as Eric’s idea, but for students interested in having a career in business. By taking business elective classes, students had an opportunity to work with local partnering businesses during the summer and also during the evenings and weekends during the school year. I was not in this program, but a few of my friends were, and it primed them for studying business in college while they made some extra cash – such a system seems like a win-win.

However, this program was for college prep students, but something similar could be implemented with students taking vocational classes. My only concern is that many schools have done away with most electives, including vocational classes.

Before writing for CONTRACTOR magazine I was studying to become a secondary school teacher. Besides learning about education theories and practices, I also learned about public policy issues affecting national and state education. As all public policy issues are concerned there are pros and cons, positives and negatives.

Get into the discussion about recruiting at Plumbing Talk

This was approximately seven years ago, and I haven’t kept up to date on what the State of Michigan is now doing with high school graduation requirements. I do know that with the graduating class of 2011, they were changing the graduation requirements — which I completely agree with — those requirements needed to be increased. However, the State of Michigan decided to go extreme and make the graduation requirements what I consider college prep requirements, leaving not much room for vocational classes and electives. I really don’t know what I would have done without my electives. I love that I had opportunities to take art classes and journalism classes. Those courses rounded out the college prep track I was on. I could go on a tangent here, but I will save that for a later time!

My point here is that as the state education systems focus more and more on prepping everyone for college, vocational classes and electives are being cut because of this, plus budget issues are playing a role in this too. Many of the electives prepping kids for the trades are falling by the way side. So many of the students that are good with their hands and have a knack for technology are missing the boat and not being exposed to the basics of the trades.

Plus, I hate to break it to the school systems, but not everyone is cut out to be college prep. Everyone has talents in different areas (thank goodness), and by pushing all students through one program does an injustice to everyone involved.

And if you start digging deeper and researching, all of the sudden it becomes clear that a career in the trades can be just as lucrative if not more than many of the careers college graduates are chasing after. In this day and age, a college degree no longer guarantees a lucrative career.

In a recent Chicago Tribune’s Sunday Paper a great opinion piece was printed, Apprenticeship Programs Can Close Skills Gaps by Dick Resch, CEO of KI Furniture. In this opinion piece he writes that the feds can’t solve the nation’s shortage of skilled labor on their own. I completely agree with this observation, so it’s time that we step in!

He also points out that skilled trades requires an aptitude for math and technology, and that many folks with advanced college degrees would be lost. Again, I completely agree with him.

He then states that a skilled machinist makes about $60,000 per year and a Master welder can bring in up to $200,000 per year.

If this is the case then why are there not enough recruits going into these fields?

The good news is that in Illinois, employers are partnering with municipalities to expand vocational training, according to Resch, and there are vocational centers in a handful of cities teaching high school students skills that will be utilized in careers such as machining and welding.

A great thing Resch is doing is bringing in high school students to tour his company and he also offers students internships at KI Furniture. I think the plumbing and HVAC industries need to take Resch’s lead and get kids interested in the trades by opening up their businesses for tours, offering internships, and going to schools during career days to discuss the trades, pay ranges of different positions, etc. This is a step in the right direction.

There is so much to discuss regarding recruiting. Please e-mail me any thoughts you have about how we can recruit the younger generations at the secondary level. I’ll be writing more about recruiting, so stay tuned! 

About the Author

Candace Roulo Blog | Senior Editor

Candace Roulo is a senior editor of Contractor magazine, based in Chicago.

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