Reinventing the Plumber Education Model

San Diego contractor develops a unique way of finding skilled workers — starting her own training school
Reinventing the Plumber Education Model
Anderson Plumbing's headquarters features a lab with a variety of equipment for students to practice on.

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Mary Jean Anderson is not immune to an issue many plumbing company owners face — finding skilled workers. But instead of leaving it to chance or relying solely on a traditional method, such as recruiting graduates of technical school programs, Anderson decided to take a more proactive approach. She started her own plumbing and HVAC school.

The school launched in March with five HVAC students. In early June, the school’s second class got started, focusing on residential plumbing service and repair. In September, the school’s third class will have a group of 10 students enrolled in plumbing and another 10 in HVAC.

One of Anderson’s primary goals is to secure new employees to match the growth of her company, Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air in San Diego. And she needs them — her company went from $4.2 million in annual revenue and 30 employees in 2005 to 178 employees and $30 million a year in 2017.

“It’s not only finding quality people,” she says, “but those who meet our high expectations. When you hire somebody they may come with some habits that you may not want. Creating my own school seemed to be the only way.”

Anderson says while technical schools do a good job of training new plumbers in technical skills and are actively reaching out to potential students, she has found communication skills and ethics get neglected. Her school covers all the angles to create a well-rounded technician.

The school is located at Anderson Plumbing’s new headquarters that it moved into in April, which features a classroom and a lab with a variety of equipment designed for students to practice locating problems and doing repairs. Anderson invested nearly $50,000 to create the school and outfit the classroom and lab.

The students combine classroom time with time spent out in the field alongside trained personnel. As the students progress, they are assigned to a truck and permitted to do specific types of work. Anderson says the objective is for students to start at 16 hours of class time per week and gradually reduce it while increasing the time spent in the field.

The students are paid $12 per hour to attend classes, and as they progress in field operations, they can receive up to $22 per hour until they complete their education. When students are first assigned a truck, they are accompanied by quality-control inspectors. Anderson Plumbing also ensures that work is done correctly with site inspections that can occur at any time, be it for new or experienced employees.

The current teaching staff consists of Bryan Rominger, a master plumber with 21 years of plumbing and HVAC experience; Jerrod Hortom, also a master plumber with 18 years of plumbing and HVAC experience; and Patrick Mottola, sales and service manager, who focuses on helping students with sales/communications skills.

“Too often in our industry an apprentice is a second pair of hands and they are not really learning the trade — this is an expensive and lengthy process,” says Anderson. “By focusing on residential and light commercial service and repair, we can get them on the road much quicker. Part of the reason for the shortage is that it takes years to go to school and they’re learning everything from residential to new construction. From what other residential contractors are telling me, we don’t necessarily need all of that in a candidate, and we need people now to meet a growing demand for our services. We can fast-track students and make them better and stronger plumbers. The goal is for our students to take the state test in four years for their journeyman’s license.”

Anderson is working with California state education officials to have her school receive full accreditation and plans on adding classes for electricians in 2018. Other plumbing firms in California are already contacting her for recruits.

“They tell me, ‘If there is anyone you don’t like, I’ll hire them,’” she says. “There is such a desperate need. What I am doing is innovative and will make a difference. Communication skills and providing good customer service has to be part of the technical skills, and it benefits all. If we can recruit the right people, we can improve the industry’s image and attract more people to it.”


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