Keith Vadas has seen both sides of the trade versus office job-skill debate that often surrounds arguments on available jobs and work force development these days.
For 18 years, he’s worked on the management side of Roto Rooter, a national plumbing and drain-cleaning company.
But before that, he was out spraying homes for protection against insects as a field technician with Terminex. When he set out to begin a career, a trade-service job was a way to earn a solid living and feel good about a day’s work.
Now he watches young people, like his 23-year-old twin children, steer far more often toward technical, computer and more corporate-centered careers.
“[The industry] sure has changed. When you look at the [plumbing-and-service] industry, you’re just not seeing the numbers we used to have,” said Vadas, the New England region vice president for Roto Rooter. “Not many people wake up and say ‘I want to be the Roto Rooter guy.’ ”
And that’s a problem, Vadas and others inside the plumbing industry say, that could lead to a shortage of workers and, in some cases, already has.
Jose DaSilva, the field training manager for Roto Rooter in Providence, expects to add about three positions per year for the next four years. But he estimates that the state probably needs about 600 more plumbers today, though he could not say how many there are today.
In 2010, there were 2,048 licensed plumbers in the state.
“We’re going to be needing more experienced [people] in the future as people retire,” said Corinne Riley, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors.
The R.I. Department of Labor and Training identified plumbers, along with pipefitters and steamfitters, as one of its ‘Hot Jobs’ that, over the 2008 to 2018 10-year period, were projected to grow at rates above the 7.8 percent state average, pay wages above the private-sector state average of just over $41,000 annually, and generate at least 50 job openings each year.
The plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters were expected to grow 10.9 percent over that decade, provide 64 annual job openings, and pay an average $54,000 salary.
Roto Rooter reports that the average salary of a United States plumber is $43,000 and that master plumbers can earn more than $100,000.
“The experience and financial reward, I think, is a lot more than you would [get] waiting to go through a [series] of promotions [at a corporate job],” said Anthony Cattani, the Providence sales manager for Roto Rooter.
There are several apprenticeship programs available in Rhode Island but recent enrollment has been dismal.
The Community College of Rhode Island offers four levels of apprenticeship-related plumbing instruction approved by the R.I. State Apprenticeship Council through the school’s Center for Workforce and Community Education.
This year, the college is running only year four of the program, with 12 students. Years one through three were canceled because of low enrollment.
DaSilva agrees that the problem needs to be addressed with education starting at the high school level. His office, he said, has approached several schools about collaborating on outreach programs but they faced budgetary hurdles.
“When I started high school, there were a lot of classes you could take for trades,” DaSilva said. “Now when [kids] learn about trades it’s too late because they have their mind set on something else.” •