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Plumber, electrician demand grows as economy improves

Posted on February 23, 2015
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Becoming an electrician or plumber in Wisconsin is not easy, but the rewards are good, both financial and personal.

“If you are an individual who likes to work with your hands, it’s very rewarding,” said Jim Conard, chief operating officer of Northern Electric Inc. in Green Bay. “If you like to see what you’ve done and look back and say I was part of that, there’s a lot of pride.”

They are not easy careers to get into, which also means employers can’t ramp up quickly when they need more workers. Electricians and plumbers require state certification after completion of a five-year apprenticeship.

In return, apprentices get much or all of their training paid for, especially if they are in a union program and can earn in the $50,000 range once they become journeymen. Annual salaries of $75,000 to $100,000 are possible.

With the state’s economy improving, companies are beginning to see shortages of skilled workers ready to fill positions, creating competition and pushing compensation higher, especially for electricians. As a result, industry leaders are stepping up efforts to recruit apprentices.

IBEW program apprentices begin at $11.50 an hour plus benefits, said Jeremy Schauer, business development director for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 158 in Green Bay. Every six months, program participants get a raise of about 5 percent. A new journeyman will receive $29 an hour ($46 an hour including benefits).

Plumbing apprenticeships are similar.

“A top skilled plumber (in a leadership position) can earn $100,000 a year. Our top foreman is getting $5 to $10 over scale,” said Steve Schneider, plumbing division manager for Tweet Garot Mechanical Inc., in Green Bay.

Worker shortage

The recession took a bite out of the electrical and plumbing industries, as it did other trades. Wisconsin had some 900 plumbing apprentices before the recession; for several years since the number has been in 400-500 range, said Tim Cartier, master plumber with Hurckman Mechanical Industries Inc., Green Bay.

“We haven’t seen the full turn in the economy and we’re already seeing the shortage,” said Northern Electric’s Conard. “In the electrical field, to try to find skilled journeymen is impossible. If you do find someone, you’re basically stealing them from someone else.”

Companies take various approaches to dealing with worker shortages, the long training times and loss of experience. Northern Electric let some of its older workers switch to part time. Of its more than 55 employees, 45 are electricians.

“It’s to a point we are looking at some of the workloads coming and questioning how is it going to get done? It’s going to come down to who has the manpower might be the ones doing the job,” Conard said.

IBEW’s Schauer said some trades are looking at 15 percent to 25 percent shortages in manpower in the next five years, much of that because of retirements.

Like manufacturers, trades employers attempt to get to future workers — and their parents and counselors — while they are in high school. They stress the cost-benefit of an apprenticeship program.

“NWTC does a good job, but it’s got to start before that. It’s got to start right from high school,” Conard said.

Schauer said that at a recent career fair, a half-dozen of 150 students said they were thinking about construction careers. One of them was thinking of a career in electrical trades.

“A year after high school, you could be getting insurance, making a pension, and after your apprenticeship get $30 a hour,” Schauer said. “And you don’t have debt on top of it.”

Plumber wages are stable, but there is upward pressure on pay for electricians, employers said.

“There is going to be a window here, we are going to feel some pain,” Conard said. “There is going to be a huge shortage and the wage will be reflected accordingly. Since 2008, you didn’t see a lot of pay increases, but you are now.”

Skills for success

The skills needed for successful plumbing and electrical careers mirror those in the manufacturing industry: math, communications, ability to work on a team, problem solving and blueprint reading.

“The industry is changing. There is just a multitude of different facets that are making it more technical, using your brain instead of your back,” Conard said.

Hurckman Mechanical is supplying its field people with tablets, which makes it easier to update them with blueprints and plan changes. Tweet Garot Mechanical’s Schneider said 3D modeling of construction projects is becoming more common.

“Youngsters are realizing it’s getting more technically savvy,” he said.

Companies also use pre-apprentice programs, which allow both employer and worker to decide if the work is a good fit.

“We tell them, if you don’t like it, bail,” Schneider said.

Cartier said he had a couple of apprentices decide it wasn’t for them.

“It isn’t so much the physical expectations, it’s learning the Wisconsin plumbing code,” he said.

Construction/wiremen are pre-apprentices in the union program. They start at $11.73 an hour, but don’t get benefits until after a probationary period. Their total package, with benefits, would be about $21.50 an hour.

“They’ll help pull wire, help install conduit, help stock work stations to see what the different things are called,” Schauer said. “You get to see what’s involved with the industry itself. Usually, guys do that while they are waiting to become apprentices.”

IBEW adds a dozen to 20 people a year to its apprentice program. Schauer said it takes about four months, from application to interview to be accepted into the program. Applicants are ranked and taken off the list as employers need them.

Several employers said they like students from rural areas who seem to have a better work ethic. In any case, Schneider said the trades will continue to be needed.

“I always tell our guys our trade is not going to go away because of technology. It’s getting better because of it,” he said.

Utility options

In a related career, line electricians for Wisconsin Public Service Corp. make $25 to $27 an hour, and earn every bit of it when hanging from a utility pole in below freezing temperatures or other inclement weather.

Like electricians and plumbers, line electricians require five years of training. Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire, Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville, Milwaukee Area Technical College and a program at the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula offer lineman training.

“Those are the only places we hire from and a lot of utilities are getting down that same track,” Kahoun said. “Once you are a journeyman lineman, you can work anywhere in the world.”

Northeast Wisconsin Technical School also has a two-year program for substation workers, Kahoun said.

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