Plumbing predicament
Industry is expanding, but more skilled labor needed

By Eileen Mozinski Schmidt - Special to The Freeman

March 7, 2018

 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 skilled labor.
Eileen Schmidt/Special to The Freeman

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.

It is a combination that has Patrick O’Neill worried.

“In 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.

The 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 Statistics.

But 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.

  Patrick O'Neill, an instructor at Waukesha County Technical College,
teaches a recent plumbing class.
Eileen Schmidt/Special to The Freeman

Public health issues

The 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.

He 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.

The 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 council.

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 emergency.

And 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 and troubleshooting.

“If you look statistically, there is an amazing number of houses and businesses still on lead services,” O’Neill said.

  Plumbing students at work during a recent class at Waukesha County Technical College.
Eileen Schmidt/Special to The Freeman

State rules

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.

“I’m 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.

He 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.

“The 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 projects.

In recent years, Gov. Scott Walker has discussed the possibility of eliminating some plumbing licensing requirements to open up the field, which O’Neill objected to.

“It blew me away,” said O’Neill, adding that licensing requirements are “what protects us all.”

Breitlow agreed.

“I don’t see any reason to start eliminating licenses to trades that are important to health and public safety,” he said.

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.

She 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.

‘A noble profession’

To 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.

It is a career for those who possess fine motor skills and like to think critically and logically, according to O’Neill.

“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.

“It is a noble profession.”