Patrick O’Neill, an
instructor at Waukesha County Technical College, speaks
with a student before a recent plumbing class at WCTC.
The plumbing trade is expected to expand at a “much
faster rate than average” in coming years, according to
the Bureau of Labor Statistics,
creating a need for more
Eileen Schmidt/Special to
PEWAUKEE — A workforce of plumbers in which many are
approaching retirement, and water infrastructure that is
aging in some areas and under construction in others.
is a combination that has Patrick O’Neill worried.
the next 15 years, we’re going to have an attrition rate
of almost 50 percent” of plumbers statewide, said
O’Neill, an instructor for Waukesha County Technical
College’s plumbing program and owner of O’Neill
Enterprises in Oshkosh.
plumbing industry is expected to expand by 16 percent
between 2016 and 2026, growth at a “much faster rate
than average,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor
the median age of plumbers in Wisconsin is now around 50
years old, so skilled labor will soon be needed in a
much higher quantity, O’Neill said.
an instructor at Waukesha County Technical College,
teaches a recent plumbing class.
Eileen Schmidt/Special to
need for a skilled and available plumbing workforce is
underscored by the number of public health issues that
can arise within water systems, said O’Neill, who has
been teaching and working in the plumbing business for
over 20 years.
“It’s amazing how naive we’ve become as to what proper
sanitation is,” he said, adding that if people “like the
idea of drinking water being separated from toilet
water” then the training, education, and support for
plumbers must remain a priority.
said it is often taken for granted that there has not
been a major regional water issue in recent years,
noting the last large-scale local water problem was the
cryptosporidium parvum outbreak in Milwaukee in 1993.
outbreak affected over 400,000 people and resulted in
over $96 million in combined health care and
productivity losses, according to a U.S. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention study, cited by the Water
Quality & Health Council. It was the largest waterborne
disease outbreak in U.S. history, according to the
most prominent recent public health water crisis was the
contamination of lead in Flint, Michigan’s water in
2014, a situation that led to a federal state of
while the Flint water disaster grew out of specifics
related to that location — like switching the city water
source from Detroit to the Flint River — O’Neill said
there is the potential for problems elsewhere.
Large swaths of the country, including parts of the
Milwaukee metro area, were built when plumbing services
were constructed using lead and therefore may now
present the need for plumbing expertise with maintenance
you look statistically, there is an amazing number of
houses and businesses still on lead services,” O’Neill
at work during a recent class at Waukesha County
Eileen Schmidt/Special to
O’Neill praised the quality of Wisconsin’s construction
apprenticeship programs, but noted that the state rules
regarding ratios of fewer apprentices to fully-trained
plumbers on job sites can be problematic in an
environment where more skilled workers are needed.
not exactly sure why” the unbalanced ratio is needed, he
said, noting that other industries in the state operate
on a 1-1 ratio.
“Right now as it stands, because the economy is so good,
construction booming, a lot of employers are handcuffed,
they can’t take any more work,” O’Neill said.
advocated for the passage of Assembly Bill 508, which
would change the ratio to 1:1. The bill has passed the
Assembly and is waiting for a vote in the state Senate.
Others would like to see different measures taken to
encourage the development of a highly skilled workforce.
ratio isn’t that big of a deal to me. The bigger issue
is not enough contractors that train apprentices,” said
Steve Breitlow, a licensed plumber and business manager
of Plumbers Union Local 75.
Breitlow said he would like to see legislative measures
like incentives offered to employers to train
apprentices, protecting the prevailing wage, and adding
requiring apprentices to be hired for state-funded
recent years, Gov. Scott Walker has discussed the
possibility of eliminating some plumbing licensing
requirements to open up the field, which O’Neill
blew me away,” said O’Neill, adding that licensing
requirements are “what protects us all.”
don’t see any reason to start eliminating licenses to
trades that are important to health and public safety,”
There are currently no changes to those requirements but
an occupational study is being conducted, according to
Amy Hasenberg, press secretary for the governor, who
said the report is due to the Legislature and Walker by
the end of 2018.
“Plumbers, like all occupations, will be looked at.
There will be no changes to licensure until the study
concludes,” said Hasenberg, in an email to The Freeman.
said any proposed changes would require legislative
input and Walker “is committed to making sure that
everyone who wants a job can find a job.”
O’Neill suggested that licensure changes should only
follow significant related research on the subject,
including spending time in industry classes to
understand what the trade involves.
help alleviate a potential shortage of plumbers, O’Neill
said it would help if there was a concentrated effort to
help students explore trade careers beginning in
middle-school years and then into high school.
O’Neill said roughly 10 percent of his students earn a
bachelor’s degree and then enter the plumbing program.
“They went out and got that degree and found out (they)
didn’t really want to be in those fields,” he said.
Training to become a plumber — schooling, work in the
field, and the journeyworker’s exam — takes 5 years.
“First and foremost, the pay is extremely good,” O’Neill
said. And “the field and long term (prospects) of having
a career in plumbing looks awesome.”
Median pay for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters
was about $25 an hour in 2016, according to the Bureau
of Labor Statistics. Wisconsin has one of the higher
salary averages in the trade — an annual mean average
between $59,400 and $76,750 — the bureau reported.
is a career for those who possess fine motor skills and
like to think critically and logically, according to
“Most kids nowadays like working with Legos. They are
excited about building something,” he said.
“That’s what plumbing is. The end result is you are
producing something society absolutely needs.
is a noble profession.”