Why U.S. should worry about plumber shortage

The National Association of Home Builders reported that there was a 55% shortage of plumbers available for work in 2021. (Photo Metro Creative Services)

CORAOPOLIS, Pa. – Ed Bigley, executive director of Pittsburgh Plumbers Union Local 27, says the organization has served the region since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 1870s, when it was under the umbrella of the Knights of Labor.

By July 1890, it had formed its own independent union and even held its first convention in the city. The Pittsburgh Post reported that the 100th event included a “magnificent banquet” for the plumbing delegates from across the country, with members of the new union marching into the room “to the pleasant strains of the Royal Italian Orchestra.”

Afterwards, union president J. Counan made brief remarks about the importance of the plumbing profession not only for the development of businesses, but also for the general health of people living and working in the city.

Counan also stressed the importance of continuing the trade for the next generation.

Bigley said that for about 100 years after this accidental reference to the speech, young men and women, either in high school or fresh out of high school, who were good at math and problem solving and who didn't mind getting their hands dirty, After graduating from high school, they “shopped” into classrooms or vocational schools and became plumbers after completing their training.

“It has been a career that has led generations of young people to the American dream of home ownership while working their way up the corporate ladder to be part of one of our country’s most important professions,” Bigley said.

That began to change in the 1980s, when school counselors developed a mindset that looked at students who could solve a Rubik's cube and concluded they weren't destined for a life in the trades, pushing them into college instead .

Although this narrative is somewhat oversimplified, it serves as an instructive demonstration of teachers and counselors who have assumed that analytical and problem-solving skills belong only in college classrooms. In fact, these skills are just as applicable to solving a complex geometric plumbing system in a state-of-the-art hospital.

In response to the new focus on higher education, technical school classes were emptied, and often the trade classes within a school district were sent to separate buildings miles away from their classmates. Therefore, students who were interested in the careers did not learn them alongside students who took AP history or chemistry classes.

Bigley said it makes these students “feel like they're inferior to the kids taking AP courses,” adding that it also keeps them from being around their classmates at their home schools for activities do and just enjoy the entire high school experience.

The result is that 30 years later there is a dangerous shortage of people in the plumbing trade. Bigley said alarm bells rang three years ago when the National Association of Home Builders reported that the number of plumbers available for work had dropped by 55%.

Bigley said people need to wake up. “I'm not sure people really understand that plumbing isn't just about fixing a leaky pipe or replacing a rusty pipe or removing clogged roots in a toilet line,” he said.

“The economic impact of the shortage problem is not just a housing problem. It also affects the construction of new offices, hospitals, manufacturing plants, grocery stores and all the things that are part of everyone's everyday life and that you don't think about,” he said.

The shortage of licensed plumbers who install bathroom fixtures and plumbing systems drained $33 billion from the economy in 2022, according to an analysis sponsored by bathroom fixture maker Lixil. The report also found that the industry will shed a whopping 550,000 artisans within three years.

Bigley sees this in real time. To combat this, he uses both traditional methods such as job fairs and conversations with students at their schools, as well as more modern approaches such as creative online recruitment of young people. In fact, Local 27's Facebook page is a masterclass in reaching young people where they are.

“With tuition fees rising, we hope that through our messaging we will encourage young people to take a look at our training program,” he said. “The cost is minimal and they learn how to develop practical skills to prepare people for a good life.”

“Here in Pittsburgh, we've had the busiest year – heck, the busiest five years in our history, and in that same period we've had more people retire than we've hired through our training program,” he explained.

Bigley said their primary business here at their facility just off I-376 outside of Pittsburgh is commercial work, but “we also do service and industrial work, from residential to hospitals to anything you use every day.”

“A licensed plumber is the only profession standing between you and clean drinking water. “The work we do reduces disease,” he said. “That’s a huge impact you can have on people’s lives. … Our challenge is not so much that people understand how important we are in their daily lives. Anyone who has ever had water in the basement or a clogged toilet will tell you right away that this is what they get. The challenge of my industry is to convey to both teachers and young people in a meaningful way how rewarding a career as a plumber can be.”

Salena Zito is a political analyst at CNN and a reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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