For the past 11 years, I’ve owned Blue Planet Plumbing, in Asheville, North Carolina, but I entered the plumbing trade at the early age of 17. It all started in 1992, on a hot summer night after clocking out at 2 a.m. after working a 17-hour shift at a popular chain restaurant for minimum wage pay of $4.25 an hour.
Being young and a new father, I quickly realized I was ill-equipped to enter the workforce after finishing high school, and with college not an option due to financial barriers. I knew I had to do something different, if I was going to make ends meet and support my new family.
After sharing my frustration with my good friend Scott. He was working for a plumbing contractor at the time, and a proposition was made. Scott said: “Come with me tomorrow on your day off to meet my boss. Tell him you have no experience, but you’re reliable, a hard worker and you’re willing to learn.”
So, the very next morning at 5 a.m., I went to work with Scott to meet his boss at Community Heating and Plumbing while everyone was working on an eight-story commercial building.
With less than 12 hours between Scott’s proposition and the interview, I was understandably nervous; after all, I had never done anything mechanical in my life nor had I ever considered a career in construction, let alone plumbing.
My mother raised me herself after my father died when I was still just a young child. Without my father, I never did see myself as mechanically inclined. And that only added to my nervousness. Yet, even with this in mind, I recited to myself what Scott told me to say the entire time on the way to the interview. So, I kept chanting in my head:
“I am reliable. I am a hard worker. I am willing to learn!”
To my surprise, I was hired on the spot to work as a plumber’s helper, and I soon began working at an exciting new rate of pay at $5.15 an hour! I may not have known it at the time, but this was also the first day of the rest of my professional career.
Over the next 27 years, I spent countless hours perfecting my craft in the plumbing industry to become an expert at customer service and company culture. I stayed at Community for the next six years, and then worked for other plumbing companies honing my skills before starting out on my own. This dedication and drive resulted in my running one of the most successful plumbing businesses in the region. We’re continually honored to earn high ranks for customer care, particularly considering many of our competitors are much larger than our eight-person staff.
The plumbing technicians from Blue Planet Plumbing are masters of the trade. On every call, a smiling plumber arrives at a customer’s home or business in a well-marked truck that’s fully stocked with everything he might need. Our licensed plumbers wear clean uniforms with name tags, and provide customers with clear options and pricing upfront so they can make informed decisions about plumbing repairs or purchases.
In addition, we provide a three-year warranty on our labor. Plus, we’re mindful of our environment and know the plumbing industry plays an important role in protecting the environment. As a result, we’ll always recommend the best solution that will conserve water and energy – hence, our company’s name.
After close to three decades in the plumbing industry, learning plumbing and even running a successful business is no longer an obstacle.
But rather the most challenging dilemma that we are all currently dealing with is finding and training new talent to enter the industry. Let me clarify that: I don’t think that training the next generation is exactly the problem, but finding individuals who are truly interested in bettering their future and will commit to learning the trades is.
We all know that younger individuals are just not entering the plumbing trade at the same rate previous generations did. And it’s not plumbing-specific, of course, but rather applies to the electrical, heating and carpentry trades as well. Most of the new generation are entering healthcare, technology and other industries and have little to no interest in our industry.
Unfortunately, people think and associate the words “plumbing” and “plumber,” with simply dealing in filthy, extremely hard work in exchange for subpar pay.
Yes, plumbing may be a job that you will likely get dirty while doing, but the starting pay in the plumbing industry is well above minimum-wage so that stigma should be debunked.
The earning potential for a performing plumber in the flat-fee service industry starts at $75,000 and can exceed $125,000 a year. This is including, but not limited to benefits such as insurance, end-of-year bonuses, perks, spiffs, paid vacation and other paid time off, company-provided cell phones, company-provided vehicle, company-provided uniform, 401(k), continued education, tools, etc.
What’s more, the vast amount of knowledge required to become a licensed plumber may discourage individuals from joining the trade. However it is not impossible for someone who truly wants to learn.
There are a few companies that offer apprenticeship programs, and the industry needs more companies willing to invest the time it takes into training the next generation of plumbers. It remains as it did for me when I began; it’s all about an individual's level of drive and commitment to learning, retaining, and executing all of the knowledge they have gained while slowly bettering their financial future.
Here’s some words of advice I give to anyone who may be interested in learning what it takes to become a plumber. I don’t think any of this just applies to North Carolina so I hope PHC News readers can pass it on and help promote a job and career in the trades:
• Reach out to a local plumbing contractor and ask if they are offering apprenticeship programs.
• Be willing to take a cut in pay as an investment for your future.
• Be patient; sometimes apprenticeship programs (depending on the individual) can take several years to get to the next step of being promoted to a plumbing assistant.
• Be ready to invest in tools. All assistants will be required to have tools in most situations. Personal tools, or hand tools as they are typically called. Those tools will go everywhere you go.
• Immerse yourself in the plumbing industry. Books, reading, videos, codes, licensing, procedures. etc.
• Obtain the required hours to sit for the exam. The state of North Carolina requires that you work for no less than two years or 4,000 hours in the field to qualify to sit for your state exam.
• Purchase your test/code books in advance. While it’s important to become familiar with plumbing codes, you would not want to become too immersed in the code books too quickly.
Also, I think it is fair to say that anyone interested in the plumbing trade will be expected to work for at least five years to have the type of experience to be considered “well-rounded.” However, there are some exceptions to this rule and those exceptions come on a case-by-case basis.
The requirements are not extreme to become a licensed plumber in the state of North Carolina, however, the lack of interest to enter the plumbing workforce is. That’s why we offer an apprenticeship program at Blue Planet Plumbing for individuals who are interested in developing a skill set and entering a trade that will take care of themselves and their family for the rest of their lives, all while helping people in need.
By offering this apprenticeship program at Blue Planet Plumbing, we want to do our part in helping alleviate the shortage of qualified plumbers. We happily welcome a new apprentice every 12 to 18 months and encourage anyone interested in learning this trade to submit their information to be considered when the next apprentice position opens up.
Once an apprentice position opens, we will be combing through those applications to begin the interview process. While this position is not based off of experience, we will be filling the position with a candidate who excels in their interview and has the references to support their work ethic.
Our apprenticeship program is an educational hands-on program that allows our apprentice to work under veteran plumbing technicians in the field performing day-to-day plumbing operations.
We also provide training, textbooks, code books, hands-on training, digital training through our CRM program all while being paid to learn.
We place our apprentices in the field actively installing piping, understanding codes, understanding the mechanics ins and outs of a plumbing, drain waste and vent system including but not limited to hot water lines, cold water lines, pumps, sizing, code requirements, accessibility, safety etc.
Since we’re a small shop, we have to limit the opportunity to one person annually.
At this time, our apprenticeship position has been filled with someone who came to us with experience in other trades, but not plumbing. Our apprentice has been with us for six short months and in that time, he has gained skills that he will be able to utilize for life and is well on his way to becoming a technician.
The labor shortage is a huge challenge we all face. But always keep in mind that our main mission as plumbers has always been the same: To protect the health of the nation.