Contractor’s Labor Pool Runs Deep

O’Connor Plumbing keeps employees happy by training and promoting from within.
Contractor’s Labor Pool Runs Deep
O'Connor Plumbing and Heating owner Tom O'Connor and his sons, Tommy (left) and Kevin, help keep employees happy by training and promoting from within.

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Master plumber Tom O’Connor has seen some tough jobs during his more than five decades in the trade. But he consistently faces a dilemma that’s worse than a foot-long plug of grease in a drainline: finding good employees. 

“One of the biggest challenges we face is finding qualified help,” says the ower of Thomas N. O’Connor Plumbing and Heating in Germantown, Maryland. “A lot of younger people today do not want to get into the trades, even though it’s a great opportunity.” 

Statistics support O’Connor’s claim. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. currently needs 29 percent more HVACR and 21 percent more plumbing technicians — a total of more than 100,000 skilled workers. Among the estimated 500,000 plumbers in the United States alone, demand is expected to rise 10 percent by 2016. And at the same time, more than one-third of all plumbers — or approximately 167,000 workers — are expected to leave the labor pool. 

So what’s the answer? O’Connor says that plumbers need to spread the word that the field is a lot more sophisticated than many people think. Moreover, a higher level of professionalism would also go a long way toward dispelling negative stereotypes of plumbers. 

“One thing we have in our trade that’s fascinating is a lot of new energy-efficient products, things like tankless water heaters and high-tech controls on water heaters, reducing valves and thermostatic mixing valves,” he explains. “All these things require someone who understands technology. 

“This industry is more high-tech than people realize,” he adds, noting that his technicians frequently use iPads in the field to make their jobs easier. “If people understood that there’s a lot more to the trade than just physical work, maybe more young people would get involved in it.” 

Another selling point: upward mobility. George Brinton, the company’s operations manager, notes that in most career fields, it’s difficult to go from the very bottom to the top in a short period of time. “But you can in the plumbing trade,” he notes. “In six years, you can become a master plumber.” 

The company strives to provide employees with opportunities to better themselves. After the firm hires an employee, they get an apprenticeship card from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). After 7,500 hours and four years of supervised work, the employee is deemed qualified to take a journeyman plumber’s test in the jurisdiction in which they want to work. 

After two years as a journeyman, working under the supervision of a master plumber, the employee can take the test to obtain a master plumber’s license. “We have more than 10 master plumbers,” Brinton points out. “Many companies have just one — and it’s typically the guy that owns the business. We have so many because we encourage education and want our team members to grow personally and professionally.” 

But doesn’t helping an employee earn a master plumber’s license also give that employee the tools to leave O’Connor Plumbing and start their own outfit? It certainly does, O’Connor agrees. But he emphasizes that his company minimizes that risk by treating employees like family. “The bottom line is that we want our employees as qualified as possible,” he says. “Some people will always want to go and work for themselves … that’s just part of the business.” 

O’Connor also believes that plumbing offers a less tangible but equally rewarding aspect: the daily feeling of accomplishment in a job well done. “When you’ve done a job and can look at it and there’s no leaks and everything looks nice and neat, there’s a certain satisfaction to it,” he says. “It’s a great feeling.”


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