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Shortage of Plumbers Opens Floodgate of Opportunities

Plumbing is often perceived as unskilled and unstable work, with limited career opportunities. Not so. There are many reasons why a plumbing career might be a good choice these days, especially for women.

Is There a Shortage of Trained Plumbers?

Yes there is, according to Kristi Hansen, owner of a plumbing company. "We actually seem to have a trades crisis on our hands and we are short of many qualified people, especially plumbers."

Glen Gardiner, who works for a plumbing company, agrees. "There is a very obvious shortage in our region. We have advertised for skilled tradesmen with no qualified respondents."

Shavonn Eastlee is a project manager for a mechanical company in Austin, Minnesota. She reports that in the last several years, there has been less demand for plumbers due to a slow construction sector. However, demand is now on the rise again.

All agree that this shortage will drastically increase within the next five to 10 years as many of those currently in the trade retire.

Why the Shortage?

Both Gardiner and Hansen agree on the reasons for this shortage. "We feel that the trades in general have been given little priority at the secondary school level," says Gardiner. He believes this is due partly to the cost of having industrial shops in schools, and partly to the attitude that high schools are primarily a stepping stone to universities.

Hansen blames a shift in technology. "[In] the technology boom that occurred in the early '90s, computers took over as 'the' career direction for many people.

"It felt like you shifted to the trades only if you didn't have any other choices in life. Perhaps it seemed to require more brute than brains or skill -- but nothing could be further from the truth."

She feels that young people do not understand that the technology of plumbing has also been changing, requiring more advanced skills. For example, advances in technology are creating a demand for plumbers who are computer literate.

Some believe that plumbing work is not steady work. "I'd say that maintaining people's home systems is a full-time job," says Hansen.

"I personally even out my workload by keeping myself open to any and all opportunities that present themselves to me. As a result of this, I have been on some extremely creative and unique projects, which is always fun," she adds.

Gardiner agrees. "Construction is now a year-round operation. It has been our experience over the last 10 years or so that there is no slow period." But he adds that "this may not be the case with the industry in general."

The work can be physically demanding. But it seems society's attitude is what keeps young people from considering a plumbing career.

"The physical aspect might prevent some from becoming interested. We feel, however, the fact that the trades are seemingly portrayed as 'inferior' work to youth is a greater deterrent," says Gardiner.

Sometimes the work requires dealing with messy situations. Gardiner believes "without a doubt" that this deters people from trying plumbing.

Hansen sees plumbing services as absolutely necessary to maintaining civilization. Plumbers ensure that water and waste are properly treated in order to prevent disease and protect public health.

Abundant Opportunities Go Beyond Fixing Pipes

The future of plumbing as a career parallels advances in technology.

"The hydronic heating field is challenging and interesting," reports Gardiner. "With diminishing natural resources and increasing fuel costs, the new technologies developed to provide residential and commercial heating will be very interesting to work with."

Hansen believes that the future of plumbing has to do with the larger future of the environment. "It is not enough to feel good about our own household's sanitation. We need to think beyond that and ask questions like 'where does it all go from here?'"

On individual terms, there are many opportunities that already exist beyond installing and fixing other people's pipes. Hansen says that being a qualified plumber is "a wonderful foundation for opening a supply store or service company." Then you can become your own boss.

Hansen owns her own business. "I'm finding this very exciting, as I am tearing out the old, dreaming up the new, installing and finishing it."

She does full kitchen and bathroom renovations as her main specialty. "This is particularly fun for me because I have a crew and project to oversee, the clients to coax along, and design ideas and techniques to explore," she says.

Plumbing can be an exercise in self-expression and creativity -- it can be what you want it to be.

Eastlee adds that plumbing offers very good wages, excellent benefits and usually steady work year round.

A Special Place for Women in Plumbing

Hansen explains that women who live alone and single moms prefer to call a woman when they need plumbing work done. "Without a doubt," she says. "Wouldn't you feel safer if you were a single woman alone?"

And when women find a female plumber, "these women have found their plumber for life. But there aren't enough [women plumbers] to go around."

At the same time, Hansen points out that many male plumbers "know that it's scary for a lot of women out there to have a stranger in their home. These plumbers are very conscious of this and go to extra lengths to make the visit non-intimidating and pleasant." Still, a woman plumber seems to be the first choice for women living on their own.

Gardiner addresses the expectations of women by prospective employers. "Anyone with the proper skills and abilities should be able to perform equally," regardless of their gender.


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