Finding Solutions to Bridge the Knowledge Gap

The plumbing industry needs to find new ways to acquire, train, and onboard young talent

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The plumbing trade is in peril. An entire generation of professionals is getting ready to retire. The X and Y generations are not as interested in the pipe trades. The window for information to be passed down is closing fast.

Schools have stopped introducing the trades as career opportunities for students. The students who make it to a local trade school are being taught by professors with no field experience. Acquiring, training, and onboarding young talent into our trade has become unreliable, unorganized, and occasionally a complete disaster for all involved. Our trade has never been in a more desperate position.

The Issue Begins at the High School Level

We have developed into a "must go to college" nation. Guidance counselors and educators at the high school level are so focused on getting students into college that they have forgotten the trades. High school students feel pressure from both parents and educators to go to college. The trades are being neglected and it is one of America’s biggest issues.

The guidance counselors in most schools see their goal as getting students into a great college or university. The top students in the Advanced Placement Programs are given help applying to colleges and filling out financial aid forms. As a result, they get to spend more time with counselors. These students are the shining stars and get the most attention from teachers and counselors alike. But what about the kid who has B’s and C’s and doesn’t do so hot on standardized tests? He or she might excel in “hands on” applications, but we would never know because shop classes have disappeared from schools and vocational schools are viewed as substandard education. When a student is a great hands-on student, educators are at a loss. The counselors and teachers say, “OK, that’s great! You should go to a trade school.”

Unfortunately, that is where the effort by the academic world ends. There is no sit-down meeting with parents and faculty to help the student get into a specific trade, or decide what trade school is the best one to go to. The student is on his/her own.

Non-Union Trade Schools are Too Licensing Exam Focused

Out of high school, most people get into the plumbing program at the local community college. They get a safety overview course and some book work on how to solder. The curriculum concentrates on one element — the licensing exam. The students know the code book front to back and memorize chart tables on minimum sizing. They learn how a vent system is installed and what the inspector is looking for on hanger spacing. Most even learn how to run PEX tubing and glue drain pipe. Teachers know this is the information that is on the licensing exam, so this is what they teach.

After they pass their licensing exam, they get their license cards. They are (in some capacity) a licensed plumber. Teachers tell the students how they can make $60,000 per year and can be up and running their own business in no time.

Too many of the teachers in non-union trade schools have never turned a pipe wrench in their life. They are what they are — teachers. We have a generation of tradesmen being instructed by non-tradesmen. They are being trained how to pass the exam, not how to deal with real-life plumbing issues.

Ill-Prepared for Field Work

These students are now licensed plumbers. They are hired by a local plumbing firm. Both the company and the student are excited to get to work. The company sends him/her out with a senior tech. The senior tech comes back and says, “He’s a nice kid but he is very green. He wasn’t comfortable with soldering yet, didn’t know how to operate a drain machine, and couldn’t thread pipe on his own.”

Herein lies the problem. The company and the senior technicians say that these are three skills that should be taught in a trade school. The trade school says that this should be taught in the field by journeyman level plumbers. Owners don’t want to have to pay for the new hire’s training especially after that person just got done paying for his own training at the trade school.

What’s the Answer?

A system is needed where the student spends time in the classroom learning the codes, and then time in the field with technicians. Our union friends have a great system for this, but applying their system to small service businesses in smaller markets is too much of a cost burden. Students should have to spend one or two nights a week going to night school for licensing exam purposes. During the week they should get credit for hours spent on the job with real technicians for a local company.

Learning how to solder, thread pipe, run a cable machine, and plumbing diagnostics and installations should be taught in a trade school by a fellow licensed tradesman. Customer services skills, tricks of the trade, and more advanced and company specific skills should be taught on the job. The system should incorporate both to give aspiring plumbers the most well-rounded education, similar to the system that had been in place decades ago.

It seems that the responsibility to implement this type of system lies on our shoulders. We should put forth the effort locally to push this type of system, and have open communication with each other using social media platforms to bounce ideas and successes off of each other. If we don’t change our ways and efforts, then nothing will change.

About the Author

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


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