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The Plumbing Labor Shortage: Causes, Effects & Innovative Solutions

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Finding, hiring and retaining qualified pros continues to affect many trades, including plumbing. In construction, builders report a 55% shortage of plumbers available for work training, according to HBI’s Spring 2021 Construction Labor Market Report. In March 2021, a staffing company called PeopleReady reported that job postings for plumbing apprentices are sitting unfilled for an average of 29 days. This lack of skilled labor is straining current plumbers on multiple fronts, from demanding longer hours to having to decline opportunities because they don’t have the bandwidth. 

To understand what this means for the industry long term and for pros today, we have to consider the whole picture: how we got here, what challenges it presents right now and how to address them in the short and long term. 

What Caused the Skilled Labor Shortage? 

There are many factors that, when they converged beginning in the early 2000s, led to the shortage. 

The Great Recession. Not only did this cause many contractors to go out of business, but it also put training programs like apprenticeships on the decline. From October 2007 to March 2009, construction and extraction jobs, which include plumbing jobs, dropped about 26%, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Now, with the recession over 10 years behind the U.S., the trades still haven't replaced all the workers they lost, as they remain about 18% down from October 2007. 

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

An aging workforce. As more Baby Boomers continue to retire from the trade, fewer young people are entering the trade. In construction, 22% of the workforce is on its way to retirement, and a smaller group of young people are taking their place, according to HBI’s Spring 2021 Construction Labor Market Report

Emphasis on college. Greater focus on college education has contributed to the trades’ decline in popularity. High schools emphasize four-year colleges and universities, making them the social standard for post-secondary education. Trade schools didn’t receive the same prioritization and gained the stigma of being a less-attractive path for a career. 

Only 7% of Americans would recommend a technical certificate as the highest level of education for their child or close family member, compared to 26% who would feel comfortable recommending a child or close family member pursue up to a bachelor's degree, according to Varying Degrees 2021: New America’s Fifth Annual Survey on Higher Educati­­on

Funding plays a role too. After years of declining federal support of career and technical education (CTE), funding for CTE programs have just recently begun to see modest increases, according to The Association for Career and Technical Education. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many states cut spending, and their budgets, or supplemental budgets, decreased state CTE funding for fiscal year 2021, according to a 2020 Advance CTE report, which also predicts that this trend will continue and even worsen for many states as they continue to experience economic challenges. 

Effects of the Labor Shortage 
The labor shortage impacts contractors’ business operations in several ways, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Q1 2021 Commercial Construction Index, including: 

  • Making it more difficult to find and retain skilled workers. 
  • Raising concerns about workers having adequate skill levels.  
  • Making it more challenging to meet project deadlines. 
  • Often requiring existing workers to do more work. 
  • Requiring contractors to submit higher bids for projects. 
  • Sometimes causing contractors to turn down work. 

As the trades struggle to attract and train more skilled workers, the construction industry continues to grow. With an aging housing infrastructure, more home improvement and repair expenditures and a growing trend of urbanization, plumbers need creative solutions to compensate for a shortage in skilled workers. 

Overcoming the Labor Shortage with Innovative Solutions 

Growing the workforce won’t happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean plumbing pros have to endure the challenges of the shortage with no relief.  

Plumbing Technology as an Immediate Solution 

Advanced plumbing methods and technology like SharkBite push-to-connect plumbing solutions provide pros with immediate help in two ways. First, they help make up for a lack in labor by speeding up installation times by up to 30% while offering the same reliability and quality you want in a plumbing system. Second, they have less of a learning curve than other plumbing installation methods, which means you can put apprentices or new hires to work more quickly to distribute the workload, maximize productivity and increase profitability. In a tight labor market, that’s no small thing. 

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SharkBite products are engineered to make even complex plumbing repairs and installations faster and safer with the following features: 

  • Installation requires no special tools, torches or chemicals, reducing install errors and safety hazards. 
  • A single fitting connects different pipe sizes and materials for quicker transitions. 
  • Field-tested fittings allow pipe to be quickly connected, even on wet lines and in tight spots like crawl spaces or in other undesirable conditions. 
  • No solder splatter or glue to clean up, giving finished jobs a professional, polished look. 

Outreach and Workforce Development as a Long-term Solution 

In addition to providing the current workforce tools to help them compensate for the lack of labor right now, systemic efforts will help address the root cause of the issue and ensure a bright future for the trades.  

Several states like Michigan are working to close the skills gap, and organizations like Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC) are spearheading educational outreach and creating resources to help showcase the trades as a fulfilling and well-paying career option.  

Manufacturers and other companies associated with the trades are also stepping up. RWC, SharkBite’s parent company, for example, is partnering with Home Builders Institute (HBI) to help provide students with the skills, experience and placement services they need to have a successful career in the trades.  

By coming at the issue from all angles, together we can help contractors today and in the future. 

How We're Helping

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How To Install SharkBite Push-to-Connect Fittings

Learn how SharkBite Universal brass push-to-connect fittings create a seamless and easy transition between different types of pipe materials. No tools are required, and the fittings can be even installed in wet lines.

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