In the November issue of Supply House Times, we chronicled the American Supply Association spearheading a select group of plumbing representatives who participated in a meeting inside the White House, discussing the importance of numerous hot-button issues, including workforce development in a time where the labor shortage throughout the PHCP-PVF supply chain continues to worsen. On that front, Supply House Times recently sat down with ASA CEO Mike Adelizzi to discuss the association’s continued efforts to attract, train and retain new talent throughout the industry — particularly in the trades.
You mentioned an industry roundtable meeting that occurred during this year’s Design-Build Week in Orlando that kind of pushed things forward in terms of what transpired during the White House meeting. Can you elaborate?
MA: Remodeling contractors, interior designers, everyone talked about the labor subject and that we need more plumbers, more pipe fitters, more HVAC people. Everyone was talking about these ad campaigns we should be running and that we need to educate parents and everyone else on career opportunities. It gets to me and I say, “There’s no way we can mount an ad campaign big enough and sustain it long enough to overturn 30 to 40 years of school systems and parents pushing kids to go to college because if you don’t go into college you’ll end up in construction.”
But what we can do is realize we have a builder, whether you like him or not, in the White House who knows construction. Some homebuilders know him personally. Why not host a summit where we can invite the White House and talk about ways we can get craft training back into the high schools. It turns out the day we were supposed to go there (to meet at Department of Labor, which got cancelled due to the shooting of four people, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise), President Trump signed an executive order to form a task group to look at apprenticeship and how we can do things differently that isn’t as bureaucratic as the current Bureau of Apprenticeship Training standards.
Does the executive order help our industry?
MA: It kind of excludes construction. It deals more with manufacturers gearing up to do apprenticeships for their factories. Because construction still is currently governed under BAT, they figured it’s covered and it’s not. We kind of dropped the idea for a few months until Ferguson called and talked about one of their guys who deals with the shipyards in Norfolk hearing they don’t have enough pipe fitters on the ships. Even contractors say the apprenticeship program is too slow. The program is four years, 140 hours of on-the-job training and 2,000 hours working under a journeyman. Kids are dropping out after two and three years. That got us thinking. We have to deal with this.
What’s the ideal solution from ASA’s end that was pitched during the White House meeting?
MA: How do we fast-track? We fast-track by getting classes in the high schools. These would be one- and two-year-accredited programs with the kids who are being taught everything an apprentice would do after high school. They would get that in high school. When the kids get out of high school, we want the Department of Labor to recognize those students as being in their second or third year of apprenticeship. Kids will be able to fast-track their training out of high school and get on the job as a full-fledged journeyman quicker.
There would be less chance of a kid saying, “I’m tired. This is too long. I want to quit.” That’s our ask. We told the federal government we will fund these classes. Our goal is 1,000 high schools and 1,000 plumbing programs in those high schools. We will fund it, provide the instructors and all the equipment. All we ask is your willingness to open your doors and put it in your curriculum. We need the federal government’s help in pushing the Department of Education and the state governors to stress the importance of this and to work to make this happen and then recognize these kids when they get out of high school.
Where does the 1,000-school number come from?
MA: I believe there are 1,000 high schools that participate in Skills USA in some fashion. Those are schools that have a propensity to understand apprenticeship at the school level. It would be easier to go to that school and say, “We’d like to do a plumbing class,” as opposed to going to 10,000 random high schools.
There is a school district in suburban Chicago (District 211 with five high schools) already doing this with different trades?
MA: It’s part of the curriculum and it’s under the auspices of the applied technology department. They help build homes through the carpentry part of it. When those kids get out of high school they have a skill. They have a strong model and have been doing it for 40 years. Let’s keep doing that and let’s get plumbing in these schools as well. If you do that in 1,000 schools around the country, you will start making a dent in the labor pool.
How do associations such as PHCC and NKBA factor in?
MA: There is a role for everybody because we need that local partnership between a contractor, a distributor and even designers to go to schools and say, “We would like to work with you to open up these classes.” These associations are going to be the way to get this done — their members. PHCC is very important because of the contractor part and NKBA is very passionate about this.
What about the critics who are leery of the phrase fast-tracking?
MA: We’re not fast-tracking per se. We are shifting it so kids can do it in high school so when they get out they only have two years to finish as opposed to four years. We’re getting them into the industry quicker. In high school they could be working for a plumber and earning money doing basic stuff in the summer or whenever. We don’t want to shortchange training, but we want to fit into a two-year timeframe. We don’t want a bunch of plumbers that all they can do is put a bunch of toilets in.
How do you put into words how bad the labor shortage is throughout the supply chain?
MA: I was talking to a contractor who said they have product sitting on a distributor’s shelf earmarked for a jobsite, but the contractor can’t get to it because they are overworked. This person said they walked away from at least $30,000 of work since the first of the year because they don’t have the manpower to do it. Generals are offering to pay more money but firms can’t do the work because they don’t have the help. If we do 1,000 schools and we have 35 students per class and you do it for a few years and not one kid goes into plumbing, you still have trained thousands and thousands of future homeowners on how to sweat a pipe or change their own toilet and faucet.
It’s a crisis right now. You want to replace infrastructure? We don’t have the labor. You want to build new houses and get people to buy more houses? We don’t have the labor. What’s going to happen to the price? It’s going to go out of sight because we don’t have the labor. We need to deal with this now from an industry perspective.