What Happened When NAFTA Collided With the Plumbing Industry

The author looks at how the displacement of jobs due to the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 affected aspects of the plumbing industry that can still be seen today

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I recently spoke with a few old plumbers about how they went from the steel trades to the pipe trades. This history led me down an interesting path that explains some of the things that we see in the plumbing industry today.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 led to one of the largest job displacements in United States history. Workers by the hundreds of thousands in the manufacturing field were laid off. The federal government decided to act. It started programs in the most heavily affected areas to try and retrain these workers and place them in other private sector jobs. There was not a lot of time to waste on this retraining schedule because the unemployment benefits were starting to run out. As you can imagine, these workers were infuriated and had a feeling of abandonment. These people had families to feed and bills to pay. Anyone in their position would be panicked and starving for work.

Desperate to place these workers into the job market, the federal government created taxpayer-funded retraining programs, such as the NAFTA Transitional Adjustment Assistance Program. There were multiple options that they could deploy for different people depending on how their “interview” went. Most of the workers were so disgusted about the loss of their jobs that they became uninterested in retraining of any sort. A big problem was that a lot of these workers expected their respective industry to make a comeback because they had seen strikes and recessions come and go in their lifetime. 

Eventually workers realized that they truly had been replaced by their less expensive southern counterparts and that the industries were not going to bounce back. The unemployment benefits were starting to run thin, and the prideful working classes were losing their pride being on unemployment — they had to act. Many of these people accepted the retraining, conducted the interview, and were placed in vocational schools to learn a trade that the counselors felt was best suited for the individual. Since a lot of the work these people did used equipment and tools, the options given were related to the trades — specifically the plumbing and heating trade. Here is where we run into a problem.

Instead of having to follow the thorough process of apprentice, journeyman, master book hours, and tests to become a true tradesman, they were given a six-month course taught by a non-trade teacher and provided a code book to study. The workers passed the initial plumbing exam and were given a “plumber’s certificate.” Now the plumbing trade had an impossibly large influx of retrained workers showing up at plumbing companies expecting mill wages. They were told that they could be making top plumber wages, and even though they wouldn’t be making what they were earning at the mill, that it would be the closest they were going to get.

This retrained worker now believed he was a plumber. He’d show up for the placement interview at the local plumbing outfit and be told that he is not a plumber, and that he would make half of what the retraining program sold him on. He’d get a pay increase when the company figured out what he could and could not do. The worker was now angry at the plumbing company because he assumed the company must be lying and trying to take advantage of him. He didn’t realize that this trade is a lifetime of learning and trial and error. You don’t become a plumber because you can pass a test and a six-month course.

At the mill you had to show up, fill out an application, and were hired to do controlled and organized movements within one building. Out in the plumbing field, these workers were suddenly dealing with uncontrolled, unorganized, and extremely complicated plumbing and heating systems and it was too much for them to handle. Eventually the worker would become so frustrated with his lack of skills that he would quit and open his own plumbing shop. 

This influx of improperly trained “plumbers” with an associate’s certificate from a six-month retraining and placement vocational school taught by non-tradesmen was a quick way for the federal government to save face with the unemployed. This move also led to a massive quantity of hack work, cost cutting pricing, cash only transactions, and the start of the collapse of the plumbing and heating trade.

Customers now have the option of 10 plumbing companies per city block, with prices ranging widely. Expectations from a customer on pricing, reliability, and know-how went from an all-time high to an all-time low. States have since adopted plumbing codes with checks and balances, but to some extent damage had already been done to the infrastructure and the longstanding relationship between plumber and community. To this day, there are states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio that do not have state licensing and still deal with the saturated market of the unlicensed and unqualified. 

About the Author

Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has 22 years of experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College. 


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