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Business and Economy

Plumber Shortage: Too Few Plumbers in Maine Pipeline

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Tom Porter
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MPBN

BRUNSWICK, Maine - If you've had trouble recently being able to find someone to unblock your kitchen sink or fix a broken pipe, you're not alone. Maine has a shortage of plumbers, and the state Labor Department is actively encouraging people to take up the trade. But that's often easier said than done.

It's a Sunday afternoon in Brunswick and master plumber George Doughty is cleaning up his work van, getting ready for another busy week. Ask him about work, and Doughty says his phone's ringing off the hook. "Right out straight," he says. "I can't keep up with it all. Personally it looks like there's way more work than I can handle."

He's working about 10 hours a day during the week, and uses Saturday to catch up on paperwork. Not that he's complaining. Doughty - who's been plumbing for nearly 40 years - considers himself fortunate to have made it through the recent recession. During that time he was forced to downsize - laying off his two sons, who had been working and training under him.

"Oh, no, it was awful a few years ago," he says. "Everything came to a standstill, pretty much. There was almost no work - that's part of why there aren't any plumbers left around. Some of them either retired or went off and got other jobs."

Tom Porter: "You might want to retire one day. What's going to happen to all your clients?"

George Doughty: "I don't know. I really don't know. I don't have anybody that I would necessarily recommend. There are a few other good plumbers, but they tend to be pretty busy too."

Doughty says that before you can do jobs on your own you have to qualify as a master plumber, and that takes at least four years of training - about 4,000 hours of work experience.

For some plumbers, the journey begins at places like this: "My name's Aaron Ford. I'm the plumbing instructor here at Southern Maine Community College."
 

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Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
/
MPBN
Southern Maine Community College plumbing instructor Aaron Ford.

There may be a shortage of plumbers, but Aaron Ford sees no shortage of youngsters vying for one of the 18 places on the college's one-year plumbing certification course.  In the spring, students are assigned to build their own bathrooms. But before that, they have to learn some the basics.

"I go over how to rebuild a faucet, how to rebuild a shower valve," Ford says. "They rebuild a toilet, they rebuild a flushometer, urinal or water closet, show them how to use a closet auger, snake, proper use of a plunger. You wouldn't think there was a proper use of a plunger right? But there is a proper way of doing it."

There's still a long way to go before becoming a master plumber, but a community college certificate provides students with more than 500 hours towards an apprenticeship. It also helps prepare them for the journeyman's exam, which comes after 2,000 work hours.

Ford says the next step is to find work placements for these journeymen-in-training. Once a journeyman, it generally takes a further two years to become a master plumber.

Tom Porter: "Is it challenging for these students to find a master plumber to take them on?"

Aaron Ford: "Sometimes it can be. I'm starting my fourth year here as instructor, and we've been pretty fortunate - we have businesses call looking for guys, so we're able to put a lot of my students out. It's not part of the program but I do everything I possible can to get these guys jobs."

Despite these efforts, Julie Rabinowitz of the Maine Department of labor says the state still faces the prospect of an ongoing plumber shortage for the foreseeable future. "We don't have enough plumbers in the pipeline - no pun intended," Rabinowitz says.

Rabinowitz says the state has 1,800 people listed as plumbers, but that includes apprentices and journeymen. The precise number of master plumbers is not known. What is known is that plumbing is a high-wage, in-demand occupation and there are only 16 apprenticeships in the entire state.

"We are always on the lookout for employers, or trade associations, or groups of employers, who would be willing and interested to sponsor apprenticeships," Rabinowitz says.

The plumber shortage is often felt most acutely in more isolated, rural communities. One small western Maine town hit the headlines recently for its proposed solution to the problem. Jackman - population 800 - found itself without a plumber when a long-time local plumber retired. The next closest one lives about 50 miles away. So, the town has raised a couple of thousand dollars for a scholarship to try to encourage someone in the area to become a certified plumber and return to work in the town.

The inability to find a plumber can have serious consequences - and Doughty says that doesn't just mean a leaking faucet or a flooded basement.  "The most important thing that we're responsible for are health issues," he says. "That's the whole reason for the plumbing code - make sure that sewer gases don't get into the house and what-not."

Tom Porter: "Any chance you can come over and unblock my lavatory before you go?"

George Doughty: "Not a chance, it's Sunday."

Learn about Maine's plumbing apprenticeship program.

Learn more about the plumbing profession from the U.S. Department of Labor.