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There's a shortage of skilled tradespeople throughout the American economy, and it is a persistent problem that started well before the pandemic. But what's behind that gap and what can be done? Paul Solman reports for our series, "Work Shift", which focuses on navigating the job market in a post-COVID economy.
There's a shortage of skilled tradespeople throughout the U.S. economy, a persistent problem that started well before the pandemic.
But, given high unemployment, it is an important time to explore what's behind that gap and what can be done about it.
Paul Solman has the story for our series Work Shift, which focuses on navigating the job market in a post-COVID economy.
Superstar Seattle, where the high-tech young make six figures and up. But you can make that much in low-tech too, says plumber Vinnie Sposari.
Drain cleaning, light plumbing repairs and that kind of thing, we have got guys making over $100,000 a year.
Sposari owns Seattle's Mr. Rooter franchise.
I have got plumbers that work for me today that make $200,000-plus a year.
And they're what age?
Any age, in their 30s, 40s.
Making $200,000 a year or more?
That's because there simply aren't enough plumbers, not in boomtowns like Seattle, not anywhere.
Manpower is one of the most frustrating parts of my job, filling all the spots, I could hire six, eight experienced plumbers right now.
But they're just not out there?
They're just not out there. Guys that are my age, they're aging out.
But why aren't they being replaced with the young, given their historically low participation rate, made worse by the pandemic?
There are all these kids who either aren't working at all or are working in dead-end, low-wage jobs. Why can't you just say to them, hey, by age of 25 or 30, you could be making six figures; just come with me?
I would love to. I have gone to some career days. The kids, you're waiting for them to come talk to you. And they just don't.
So, why no takers?
First and foremost is the perception of plumbing.
Trevor Caldwell is Vinnie Sposari's right hand man.
There's this stigma that goes along with getting your hands dirty, just a plumber, not a person, just a plumber. And I don't want to be that guy.
Or that gal.
You're doing manual labor. Some people tend to look down on that. And that makes people not want to go into it, clearly.
Sarah Schnabel isn't a plumber, but an Ithaca, New York, electrical apprentice, another well-paying trade which can't find good help these days, a frustration for Schnabel's boss, Brian LaMorte, and for his colleagues.
I know lots of guys in the trade who are contractors, and they're looking for help.
And willing to pay for it.
We have recently raised our rates as a business to $90 an hour, and we are not pushing the envelope. We were $75 a little while ago and $65 a little while before that.
It's getting to the point where you probably pay us more to come fix your light switch than you do to go to the doctor.
So, again, why no takers?
I do think, for people my age, it's definitely more glamorous to think of the tech job, where you're in a really nice cushy office building.
We're the kind of people who are going to hire someone to go change a light bulb, let alone go into the trades. That's kind of where my generation is right now.
I can't give them a power tool. They might kill themselves with it. They have never held a power tool in their life.
Yes, says Detroit master plumber Adrienne Bennett, whose firm is currently helping to revitalize Michigan's Central Station, it takes a non-cushy mind-set.
This is physical work. You need to be there on the job site every day. And you got to be on time. And a lot of the young people today, they don't have work ethics.
But, of course, plenty do. Determined to breed new plumbers, Vinnie Sposari runs his own year-long training program, paying young people from the get-go to learn the trade.
We're paying our trainees $15, $16, $18 an hour. And then, when you're done with the program, you're not a full licensed plumber, but you're a service technician who's able to snake drains and to do the kind of small plumbing repairs and whatnot and get close to that six-figure income. You're getting paid to learn that.
After a certain number of hours and possibly an exam — the requirements vary by locality — you can become a licensed plumber, a quality credential in an economy where only 11 percent of employers think colleges and universities are doing a good job of preparing people for the work force.
Says Sposari of his apprenticeship program:
It's open for everybody. I would welcome anybody.
But, says Sposari:
You would be amazed how many people we want to hire, but our insurance company won't insure them because of driving violations, drugs, can't keep a job.
You see some applicants come in here in a ripped T-shirt, hasn't shaved. You go out, look at his car and it's full of garbage. It hasn't been washed in a month. Those are the things we look at.
But, hey, plenty of young folks have intact T-shirts, clean faces, clean cars. Maybe they realize, or learn, that you need an apprenticeship to get licensed, says plumber Adrienne Bennett.
And the apprenticeships are five years. And you start out at maybe $15, $16 an hour, and to get to $40, $50 an hour is going to take you five or six years.
Plus, to get a job, isn't it who you know? And few potential candidates know tradespeople, it seems.
I didn't knew nobody.
Manuel Rios, a Mr. Rooter trainee, used to work on electric motors for $18 an hour, with little prospect of making much more. But, by chance, he met some plumbers there.
They say that they make a lot of money. And I realized that the plumbing is never going to end, because you are always going to need a plumber. So the business is always going to be there.
The final barrier to entry in the trades is a familiar one, says electrician LaMorte.
There is a certain feeling that it's kind of like a white man's game, I hate to say it. So, people who are LGBTQ., minorities are a little bit intimidated by the boys club that exists.
And, of course, women.
Added together, that's about two-thirds of the country. In the late 1970s, Adrienne Bennett was recruited as a union plumbing apprentice under a federal program targeting women. Similar programs exist today.
This is something that will keep food on the table. It will keep clothes on your back. It will keep a roof over your head. I'm living proof.
Living proof, as CEO of her own industrial contracting plumbing business since 2008.
For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.
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