Plumbing and pipe-fitting are among the trades experiencing an exodus of workers, in part because of a growing number of retirements. In Columbus, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 189 reports about 500 members have retired since 2000 - that's more than half the members working at any given time.
The Ohio building trades want to see more women and other minority trainees, so they created a non-profit organization called Act Ohio.
“A lot of our industry involves, you know, it’s not just a tape measure, you’ll have to lay a lot of this work out with preplanning and organizing and a lot of it goes back to math and some of our science formulas,” says Rich Manley, training director with Local 189.
Manley says he's seen many changes over his 35 years as a pipe-fitter. Job sites are safer today with government oversight, and the workforce is also more diverse.
“The country club mentality that existed in here years ago, that has long vanished. This is a very progressive labor organization,” Manley says. “We do our level best to reach out to all groups to show them this is a first-class ticket to the middle-class.”
A recent report from staffing firm Adecco says retirement is an issue affecting all of the trades, and will get worse since about 40 percent of all trade workers are around the age of 50.
Stacie Alexander, 32, is hoping to take advantage of that. She’s following in her father’s footsteps in the pipe-fitting trade.
“I have two kids so I was struggling to live on my own, with my two kids. I wasn’t making a livable wage and I definitely wasn’t able to have the lifestyle that I wanted for them,” Alexander says. "I wanted to look out for a career that I could have that would allow me to provide for my kids and my family.”
Alexander says she tried college and ended up with no degree and $18,000 in school debt. Training to become a pipe-fitter, on the other hand, is one of her best decisions.
Alexander is one of 468 female apprentices in an Act Ohio apprenticeship program. That’s nearly double the number from 2016.
“I love it. I love it a lot. I’m really enjoying it. They are very helpful. They make sure we have everything that we need," Alexander says. "If we have any questions, they always share their stories and things that they’ve done and things that they think that we need to succeed.”
To make sure all trainees are ready, some of them take a pre-apprenticeship course.
“It helped me get my focus back at math," says former truck driver, Jordan Washington. "Just because I’m 27, so I’ve been out of school for almost 10 years, just to be able to mess with the tape measure and things like that, certain tools I had no experience with."
Washington says he had no interest in learning a trade in high school, but now he sees it as a way to support his family of five.
“A trade is something no one can take away from you. Once it’s learned, it’s something you’ll be able to carry with you forever,” Washington says. “It had a lot of upside to it. The money played a part in it, too. Like I said, I have a family so to be able to increase my wages, definitely helps as well.”
Washington is among a growing number of minority apprentices. Act Ohio’s apprentices include nearly 2,000 minorities, and the group spent $50 million on training last year.
“There is tremendous opportunity for young, talented people to make wonderful careers in the building and construction trades that are coming through our apprenticeship and training programs, ready to go to work, earn $60-7 0,000 a year, with zero debt,” says Matthew Szollosi, Act Ohio’s executive director.
Szollosi says as more skilled-workers retire, efforts to attract younger workers will continue ramping up. He says they plan to visit more schools to spread their positive message about jobs in the skilled trades.