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The plumbing industry is a resilient one. Throughout history, it has been hit with serious challenges that have forced leaders to re-assess the way they do business and make changes accordingly to their scope, operations and team.
COVID-19 has certainly been at the forefront of concern in 2020. And of course, the evolution in technology and increasing competition from a variety of sources has been on the radar for a number of years. But one of the biggest issues the plumbing supply chain faces is engaging the interest of a new generation of employees and leaders.
As a “mature” business segment, plumbing doesn’t have quite the bells and whistles career appeal that grabs attention from younger generations. It’s no secret that schools are incentivized to produce higher percentages of graduates going onto liberal arts colleges or universities. Many high schools have dropped their “shop” type classes and put much less emphasis on vocational/technical colleges and STEM programs with their students. In fact, less than 1% of high school students earn three credit hours of vacation tech training. Even more startling, the Copper Development Association reported that just 3% of the 18- to 25-year-olds they surveyed recently would consider a career in the trades.
Coinciding with this has been the evolving belief by many parents that their kids need a college degree to be successful — and their definition of success meant a white-collar job, not a blue one. These parents do have the best intentions for their children; they often don’t realize that being a trade or construction professional can open the door to tremendous careers.
The result of all this has been a dramatic decline in the number of tradespeople in the U.S.— particularly plumbers. More than half of America’s trade professionals are at or nearing retirement age. The Department of Labor estimates there will be a shortage of 200,000 skilled tradespeople through 2026. During that same period, the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association believes that demand will lead to at least 16% annual employment growth for plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters.
The shocking effects of COVID-19 on businesses and the job market also emphasizes the critical need for a professionally trained trade workforce. While many other organizations have been forced to lay off workers or close their doors the construction trades have been considered “essential” since the onset. Demand for their services has continued to be extremely strong and some are even reporting record years.
A bold plan
The quest to recruit and retain the right employees is a concern at every level of the plumbing supply channel. National initiatives and conversations are important, but it may take coordinated efforts at the grass roots level to realize a true difference.
One plumbing rep agency is walking their talk when it comes to increasing interest in trade careers. In a unique collaboration with their city government and school system, Battersby Danielson Azbell & Associates recently moved into Hub & Spoke, a $16-million new corporate facility that houses multiple construction-related businesses and a hands-on training facility that will not only be used by the pros, but also by students interested in pursuing a trade career.
Fishers, Ind.-based BDA is led by Bob Danielson and Joe Azbell, who are not only business partners but also best friends. Danielson got his start in the rep business in 1982 as an outside salesperson. He went on to join Brian Battersby in creating a new agency with Delta as their cornerstone line in 1986. Azbell came on board in 1992.
Danielson and Azbell took on ownership of the agency in 2007. Their dedication to each other and the agency was tested just a few years after they acquired the business when the recession of 2009 hit.
“Similar to many of our peers we both went six months without a paycheck,” Bob shared, “but we were determined to make it through. Thanks to some good decisions and strong partnerships with manufacturers and wholesalers, by 2010 we were growing in double digits.”
Danielson and Azbell have had to make some changes to “the old sink or swim methods” of learning the ropes to accommodate the differences in how Millennials learn and respond to direction and their work environment. Fortunately, they’ve had first-hand experience with members of that generation at home — some of whom are also interested in the construction industry. Joe’s son worked for a local contactor last summer, while one of Bob’s three daughters has joined BDA after having gone through Disney’s and Marriott’s leadership development programs.
“We have a significant number of Millennials at BDA and there were times we were frustrated,” Bob shared. “You can’t just tell them to go and learn how to swim. So we’ve spent a lot of time going through the ‘crawl before you walk’ stages. Once we started learning better ways to manage and communicate with them it all started coming together. We still don’t believe in micromanaging, but we must give them the tools they need to be successful.
“Millennials want to do much more than perform tasks just because that’s the way it’s ‘always been done.’ We try to make BDA a fun and engaging environment that they want to be a part of. And we regularly host extra-curricular activities and outings that bring together all of our team and their spouses.”
Their experience with Millennial employees and the serious issue of recruitment across the channel was instrumental in their decision to get involved in this new venture. Since 2000, the agency’s corporate office has been a building they built when BDA had about a dozen employees. Today they have 22 associates in Indiana and six in their Louisville, Ky., office. As BDA grew, they contemplated adding more square footage onto that facility. But instead, as Bob described, “we decided to do something bold.”
“We could have spent one-third of what we did and had a very nice office,” Joe shared. “Instead we believed it was important to invest in the future and give back to the Industry and community.”
In April, BDA moved into Hub & Spoke, a $16-million, state-of-the-art facility in Fishers, an Indianapolis suburb, that has plenty of room for now and the future.
“David Decker [who owns ACo, a luxury kitchen, bath and flooring company] came up with the idea of bringing vocational studies back with programs that included engineering, the trades and artisans,” said Bob. “He has such great energy and insightfulness on what the industry needs.”
Joe added, “You can be part of the problem or the solution, and we all wanted to be part of the solution.”
Before ground was even broken, the City of Fishers was financially on board to support the project. Then the Hamilton Southeastern School System joined the initiative. Hub & Spoke has generated great excitement in the Indianapolis area, and gotten terrific news coverage. Approximately 150 people were on hand at the ground-breaking ceremony.
“The City of Fishers is one of the most up-and-coming cities in America,” said Bob. “And they want to maintain that energy with the kids that are coming through our school system.”
Danielson and Azbell went through the process from the ground floor on up with Decker, determining what each group’s financial commitment was going to be and securing the loans, then designing the building. There was true collaboration between all the parties involved, which also includes other construction-related businesses in heating, woodworking, flooring and electrical.
The facility and its functions are guided by a Board of Directors, which Bob sits on. They are working with the school district and Purdue Polytechnic to design appropriate curriculum for local students from kindergarten through high school. Originally,they were just going to target high schoolers, but have since decided the best approach is starting early.
“The idea is to identify kids who have a natural affinity for the trades,” Joe said. “To do that, we must give them an opportunity to get their hands dirty, make things, fix things, design things. We envision kindergarteners building cardboard forts and houses next to high school kids building ‘tiny houses’ and being responsible for everything — design, construction, delivery, P&L, and any customer complaints.”
During the development process, Bob sat down with some local teachers and students and asked how many had ever considered a future as a plumber or electrician. There were none. When he started describing the type of success and independence they could attain, their interest began to perk up.
“We’re not saying kids shouldn’t go to college,” he said, “we just want them to know there are other good options. It’s important that we educate the parents too because in some cases they are pushing their kids into a path that they’re really not interested in — or that would be the right fit for them. We’ve got to overcome the stigma of what a contractor is and show them that it’s an exciting vibrant industry.”
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed legislation creating Graduation Pathways and requires that by 2023 all high school students must have some type of technical, hands-on and out-of-the-classroom work to graduate.
The Pathways move away from a one-size-fits-all approach where earning a diploma was dependent on passing graduation-qualifying exams. It allows students to select from multiple ways to graduate that align with their strengths and interests while furthering their skills. Pathways encourage relevancy and student engagement while maximizing individualized options designed to meet every student’s unique goals and needs.
Gov. Holcomb’s goal is to make high school more engaging by giving students a background that will help them succeed in the next step of their own journey—whether it is continuing their education and training, enlisting in the military, or entering the workforce.
The Hub & Spoke facility was designed to provide a central learning space for students who have an interest in a professional trade career.
How it works
Matt Kegley is executive Director of Secondary Education for Hamilton Southwest School District. He oversees grades 7 through 12, which includes two high schools that each have 3,500 students. He has a peer who handles the same responsibilities for grades K through 6. All together there are 23,000 kids in the district’s schools, making it the fourth largest school district in Indiana.
“We have very high percentage of students who go to two- or four-year colleges,” said Kegley. “But with the cost of post-secondary education rising, families are worried how they will manage. That opened the door to conversations about other options that would provide more opportunities that appeal to our students. David Decker pointed out the skill gap that we have in trade industries. So we want to help students who are interested navigate that path.”
The two Fishers high schools had an agreement with local vocational centers that allowed a student to take a bus there for a specific class, for example welding, but spend the rest of their day at the high school campus. Not surprisingly, not too many participated because of the logistical disruption.
They began working with a career center to bring various programs to the high schools. Now students can take courses right on their campus to train as an EMT, CNA, welder or even in sound production. The number of students participating has tripled since that began, which indicates that there is interest in trade careers among students.
Kegley said reaching an agreement with the city and Hub & Spoke was a major milestone in further forwarding opportunities. Students who are interested in building and construction careers will attend classes full time at Hub & Spoke. They have already hired teachers and named a director for the program, which will kick off this fall.
“Our plan is to bring in one class level at a time,” said Kegley. “We’ll be starting with up to 75 freshmen, add a second-level class next year, and follow suit until we have four course levels of students in the program.”
For the most part, students will spend a majority of their day attending courses at Hub & Spoke, which is approximately 15 minutes from each of the Fishers’ high schools. They will still be able to participate in various extracurricular areas of interest like band and sports. When they graduate, they will earn a diploma from the Hub & Spoke program.
“We’ll also be working with local contractors and trade companies on internships and opportunities for our students to get first-hand experience,” Kegley said. “They also will be taking business management classes. There may even be opportunity to create a student-run contracting business through Hub & Spoke. This is all at no cost to the students. We want to equip them to make the best choices for their futures. It adds value to the community by giving students an opportunity to form or be part of critical businesses in our area.”
Providing value by creating engagement
Danielson and Azbell believe the most important things they can do to serve their customers are to keep their team engaged, continually provide technical training, and be central to the efforts of educating a new generation of plumbing industry professionals.
“Our training room comfortably fits 40 to 50 people, and it has a full cafeteria,” shared Bob. “It’s ideal for our business partners to host training or other meetings. Delta, one of our main lines, is headquartered nearby and their building has been closed because of COVID. Their product development and service teams must continue to work and we’ve opened areas of our building for them, provided lunch and brought various contractors through to be interviewed by the Delta personnel.”
Besides the interior features, Hub & Spoke is connected to a great green space with biking/walking trails and is close to multiple restaurants and local stores. BDA’s balcony, which is just off the nature trail, is a terrific place for its team to spend time together after work. And a break room that can be used as an entertainment space on inclement days.
“We really met our goals with this facility,” said Joe. “We’ve got a great space for our team and our business partners and we’re thrilled to be part of the Hub & Spoke educational program for youth. We’ve already been contacted by many business partners to participate in the training of our local youth. Contractors, wholesalers, engineers, manufacturers — they all have a vested interest in our business and in the future of the plumbing industry.”
Bob added, “Since its origin in 1986, BDA takes significant pride in the relationships we’ve built through our integrity and the service we provide to our distributors, mechanical contractors, developers, engineers, designers and builders. Hub & Spoke is another piece of the puzzle where we strive to continue to add value to our customers. It’s an exciting time to be a manufactures rep in the plumbing/heating industry”.