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Full service plumbing operataion Accurate H2O Plumbing had a problem that began around five or six years ago, according to owners Joe and Heather Miller.
The Millers were looking to hire technicians that had a breadth of experience in the plumbing field. While they found technicians who had some experience, finding someone well-rounded with a wide range of repair experience was not in the cards.
“Being from up north, I was raised on gas. If somebody said ‘I got a boiler down,’ or a commercial or residential gas water heater or a set of gas logs, I was the first to go,” Miller says. “I don’t know if it was complacency among the plumbers, they just didn’t feel like they wanted to learn it, or there was that lack of ability to teach it.”
According to Miller and his wife Heather, there were companies throwing employees into the field after being in the plumbing industry for just three months; time they considered to be too short.
“It was kind of a scary thought,” says Heather Miller, who is also the office manager for Accurate H2O Plumbing, “that someone who doesn’t know anything about plumbing goes into a training program for three months, and then they are put into a truck. That’s a liability and just a giant question mark on that company.”
It wasn’t just inexperience that the Millers had trouble with when finding technicians. They also noticed a lack of youth in the industry.
The family had a history of trying to recruit the younger demographic by using resources right in their own town.
“We started talking to the high schools because that’s where it starts,” Heather Miller says. “There is a local high school in Lexington that has a technology center. They’ve got a building that [the students] work on. They have HVAC, electrical and masonry — everything except plumbing in this house. We talked to the principal, and it was kind of a shock that he said there used to be a plumbing class years ago, but they weren’t getting enough interest in it.”
With help from the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC) and the motivation to grow interest in the industry, the Millers started their “Ride To Decide Program,” and began to recruit students. The program allowed students to get hands-on experience with a selected technician for a day and learn a different side of the plumbing industry.
“People think about toilets when it comes to plumbing. It’s much more than that. It’s going to open up a lot of doors, and they are going to see a lot of things when they are on that truck,” Heather Miller says.
Even with this program and other efforts to recruit local students around the area, the Millers ran into the same problems. So, they had to come up with a different idea.
As the old adage goes: If you can’t find the perfect technicians, build your own.
On Jan. 6, Accurate H2O Plumbing opened the doors to the Lexington Plumbing Institute to teach young plumbers their way around the industry. The institute holds classes at the company’s facilities in South Carolina before students go out and get hands-on experience in the plumbing field.
“We were getting dismayed; we realized there is a labor problem, and that people aren’t going into the trades,” Heather Miller says. “We are trying to stop here and do our part.”
Everything from Plumbing 101 to codes, installation and customer service will be covered, according to Joe Miller. “Building the perfect plumber” is something the school aims for, he says, but they are also focusing on soft skills that can make a plumber stand out.
“We’re making them customer-oriented. This includes their soft skills, communication skills and appearance,” Joe Miller says. “You want to feel safe when this gentleman or this young lady walks into your home to fix your plumbing, and that’s what we are trying to achieve.
“When we get these folks through this program, they will actually — as long as they are certified in each particular area — qualify to take their journeyman’s exam, which will support them. They can come out of this program after 24 months as a licensed technician,” Joe Miller adds.
The journeyman’s plumber exam is required for plumbers to attain a master license in many states. A plumber can take this exam in South Carolina after working under a master plumber for two years, which is also the duration of this program. According to Heather Miller, “[The exam] is a stepping stone, although it’s not required to work as a plumber, as long as you are working under the guidance of a master plumber.”
The school was approved by the South Carolina Apprenticeship program; Heather Miller was pleased with the approval process.
“These people are fantastic,” she explains. “They come out to your office, spend time with you and find out what you want to do. They find out what you want as far as OTJ or classroom training and how many hours you need to apply. They come up with a two-year program.”
After the approval, the Millers looked to find teachers, particularly one that could teach math, as it was the hardest postion to fill. Heather Miller had a random encounter with a gentleman named Akeem Evans who she hired on the spot.
“I walked into the local AT&T store, and the person that was helping me was a math teacher for middle school and high school,” Heather Miller says. “I asked, ‘Would you be interested in teaching the math for our school?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’”
For course material, the Millers, who are proud members of PHCC, have used the Association's materials such as books and forms to help track student progress.
With the institute being approved, staffed and stocked with materials, the Millers prepared for opening day.Even with all his years of experience, Joe Miller admitted he was nervous.
“It was like going to a Motley Crew concert when you were 21. You’re pumped,” Joe Miller says.
The program will still allow the apprentices to ride with a technician, as the “Ride to Decide” program did, but the institute also incorporates a classroom session to further explain situations plumbers will face in the field.
The Millers currently have two students enrolled as apprentices. Both are “pretty excited” according to Heather Miller. If more students enroll in the program, the Millers may have to rethink how the program is set up.
According to the South Carolina Apprenticeship Program, the school can have as many students as they have trucks. If interest grows, there is a way for the school to add more students than trucks. Apprenticeship programs can switch to half days, which can then double the number of students. So, full-day programs with three trucks can have three students, but a half-day program with three trucks can have six students. The institute currently is set up up as a full-day program.
Since it has begun, the school has been contacted by Bavco Supply and A.O. Smith to teach backflow classes and water heater repair classes, respectively. The more companies that help with the school, as Heather Miller points out, the more vendors students can be exposed to.
“Plumbing is one of those trades. Even though the industry is changing, you can’t put a computer in this position and say ‘go plumb a house,’” Joe Miller says. “And you can make a pretty good living as a licensed plumber.”
Since getting over the initial hurdles, the Millers have focused a little more on the transition the company is taking with re-branding and finishing up the institute’s website.
It will take the institute’s first two students up to two years to complete the courses. In that time they will have completed 4,000 hours on the jobsite and more than 500 hours in the classroom. This may quite possibly make them the so-called perfect plumbers the Millers were originally looking for.
You can learn more about the Millers, the Lexington Institute and how to participate in the program at lexingtonplumbinginstitutesc.com.