Plumber shortage threatens America’s building industry

By Andrew G. Kireta Jr., Copper Development Association, Inc.

Drip. Your faucet’s leaking. Drip. A simple call. Drip. To your local. Drip. Plumber and you’ll. Drip. Have that annoying leak repaired in no time, right? Wrong.

A plumber shortage looms, as craftsmen age and demand grows. Despite the growing need for plumbers stemming from new building construction and stricter water efficiency standards, fewer men and women are entering the workforce today. Consequently, leaving the market place to wonder who will fill what the Today Show calls, “one of the most underrated jobs in America.”

The new workforce

Unlike craftsmen of the ‘70s or ‘80s, today’s workforce grew up in a world quite different than their predecessors. Vocational or trade schools are scarce and have had a negative stigma compared to higher learning – the notion of work-force education was left behind when academic instruction became favorable after the 2008 financial crisis.

Now, college education is practically a requirement, and pursuing a career in the trades is unpopular. Only six percent of high school students hope to have a future career as a plumber, carpenter, electrician, heating ventilation or air conditioning installer or a repair person, according to a survey done by RIDGID.

Twenty years ago, this wasn’t the case. It was common for a plumbing company to be family owned, dating back at least five generations. Boys and girls were introduced to the construction industry and trained for apprenticeship opportunities through their school’s educational programs.

Now, things are different. The plumber’s son and his classmates have been told that college is the right choice and that trades are “dirty jobs.” It really shouldn’t come as a surprise. When a plumber’s job is portrayed through iconic illustrations like Norman Rockwell’s “The Plumbers,” and image after image of clogged toilets and leaky faucets; it’s hard to think of plumbing as an art form.

The future is in education

However, crying over a stereotype isn’t going to fix anything. Over half of America’s skilled trade employees are nearing retirement age. And fewer men and women are being prepared to take their places. To address this, the Copper Development Association (CDA) has created educational programs and resources for men and women who are entering the field, as well as those who are already in the trade both young and old. It is crucial that those who are installing the piping used for our potable water, medical gas and sewer piping systems are better than average. The marketplace depends on their ability to fill multiple pairs of shoes.

My team and I regularly visit United Association (UA) local unions, PHCC chapters, vocational school programs, and contractors to participate in apprenticeship programs, conduct training courses and co-host competitions. We also provide installation design training for apprentices, career and technology centers, contractors, manufactures and young professionals. As part of the UA’s annual Instructor Training Program (ITP), we teach “Copper Piping Systems, Advanced Installations, Special Design and Safe Operations.” The course keeps instructors up to date so they can carry the message back to their apprentices and journeymen. The course focuses on techniques and applications, including: standards, soldering and brazing, dissimilar metal joining, alternate no-flame joining, joint analysis, corrosion causes and prevention for long-term performance. This year, we received the PHCC Educational Foundation’s prestigious Chairman’s Award for our ongoing efforts in educating future PHCC members in the trade.

Skilled plumbers are crucial as they quite possibly hold more lives in their hands than doctors. That’s right. Besides fixing your drinking water and annoying leaks, plumbers and pipefitters are responsible for providing the clean water we drink and cook with, as well as the medical gas we breathe in hospitals. As Dr. Lewis Thomas, chancellor of Sloan-Kettering, said in 2000, “There is no question that our health has improved spectacularly in the past century. One thing seems certain: it did not happen because of medicine, or medical science, or even the presence of doctors. Much of the credit should go to the plumbers and engineers of the western world. The contamination of drinking water by human feces was, at one time, the greatest cause of human disease and death for us... (but) when the plumbers and sanitary engineers had done their work in the construction of our cities, these diseases began to vanish.”

The right materials

With copper being used in plumbing and piping systems across the U.S., it is imperative for plumbers to not only know every type of application, but to be confident that they can tackle tough piping field applications. Recently, CDA collaborated with the UA to develop a 40-hour copper installation training curriculum as part of the 18-week UA Veterans in Piping (VIP) – Sprinkler initiative. The course covered classroom theory and hands-on training in all of the joining procedures: soldering, brazing, bending, flaring, press-connect, roll-grooved and t-drill (mechanically formed extruded tees), that a sprinkler fitter needs to be successful in installing copper.

Without the basic joining methods knowledge, water and sewer lines could potentially break down, experience leaks, and create major problems for customers. Copper is not only one of the most widely used plumbing materials, it is also long-lasting, versatile, reliable and maintenance-free.

The more copper is used in an installation, the more you can count on dependable performance. It has been used for plumbing and mechanical systems since metals were first employed for these applications. For water’s distribution and fire sprinkler systems, copper tube’s internal corrosion resistance results in superior flow capacity. Its trouble-free service means satisfied customers and less calls in the field. And its workability can cut installation time and reduce labor cost — tubes and fitting are easily joined through multiple methods to meet all system and jobsite needs and challenges. There’s another naturally occurring advantage that no other metal can match: ease of recycling. Combining natural abundance with recycling, the U.S. will remain self-sufficient in copper for countless years to come.

In addition to providing onsite training, CDA has also developed a number of resources for plumbers working in the field.

“Do It Proper with Copper” - short instructional how-to videos designed to illustrate exactly how one can use this versatile metal in plumbing, architecture and building and construction projects.

Copper Tube Handbook - one of our most recognized resources makes it easier for plumbers, HVAC technicians and contractors to obtain information about tube, piping and fitting as well as different joining methods and applications.

Becoming a plumber

With the heightened need for plumbers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting employment opportunities to grow faster than average—it is the perfect time to enter the field. It’s a skilled craft where demand is high and work is steady. Not to mention, pay is usually well above the much-debated minimum wage, and doesn’t require a mountain of college loans.

Yes, the job includes fixing annoying leaks and late night emergency calls, but it also includes an incredible amount of responsibility. Americans breathe clean air and drink pure water because of the work done by plumbers. Our country needs plumbers. However, before we can fix the unfortunate stereotype, we need to focus on the importance of flooding the marketplace with skilled tradesmen, which can only be done by providing proper educational resources and programs.

For more information about the CDA, its educational programs, or copper in plumbing, visit www.copper.org. 

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