Shortage of plumbers, other tradespeople doesn’t bode well for customers
Frank Loesser’s song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” may have been playing at recent holiday gatherings, but it could get a lot colder for people inside their homes as well if their furnaces or boilers break down. That’s something that worries Will Riley of Riley’s Plumbing & Heating of Norwich, which services southeastern Connecticut and Westerly, R.I.
Unlike years ago, when there were more plumbers and HVAC contractors available and someone could come out and get your furnace working usually within a few hours, now you “kind of have to be locked in as a customer with somebody,” because they’re all “strapped” with so many people calling, Rilkey said during a telephone interview. It can take two to three days for plumbers to service customers in December, January and February.
And if a customer need a part that is back-ordered in the U.S., Europe, Brazil, Japan or China, they might need to wait two or three weeks, or longer.
One factory, for instance, informed Riley estimated delivery time for a steam boiler is 37 to 47 weeks.
“For some reason, just like we're strapped for workers, it seems like the factories that make the stuff can't get people to come back,” he said. “It's like, where did everybody in the workforce go?”
He said one of his major suppliers has had an order for about 1,200 boilers since April and they haven't been delivered. One of the managers Riley deals with said they're hearing companies can't get enough people to work at the foundries, which involves pouring iron into molds to make boilers.
The decline in tradespeople has been pretty steady over the last five years and much worse since “Covid and the craziness of the world," Riley said.
Teresa Estrada’s sister told her when the motherboard on her heating system stopped working recently, she called 10 contractors. “They just said they’re not taking new customers at this time,” so she was going to have to buy a new system, said Estrada, membership coordinator at The Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce.
Two older plumber/HVAC contractors — both of them one-man operations — have closed, Riley said. “That's two fewer people to answer calls about broken water lines (and) no heat.”
He said he is honored when these tradespeople offer to send their customers his way, but he can't handle any more business right now. As it is, he is working 15-hour days six days a week during the busy season.
Periodically, Riley is offered jobs by major utility companies, but he always turns them down. “It's just that I grew up in the family business (which was founded in 1984) and I have the stubborn pride of trying to keep the family business going, which I have invested almost 25 years of my life to build,” he said.
He first started working for his father, Wilfred. Now, Riley said he doesn’t want to walk away from all his customers who have been there for him over the years. “It's kind of like walking away from a separate family,” he said.
His crew includes his brother, Jason, as well as Craig Faille and Faille’s brother, Tim. In the business for almost 25 years, Riley, now 43, is sometimes teased that he is one of the “old timers” now. That’s because fewer young people are going into the plumbing, heating and cooling trades in Eastern Connecticut.
He said he hired a 24-year-old man who quit after working just shy of two weeks. “His mother called to say the work was too grueling and hard for him.”
Riley said he knows of one contractor who had 17 employees and is now down to six. One of them took a pay cut to work at a casino.
To become a plumber, a student goes to a trade school for four years, and then works about two years on a job site. They can then take their first journeyman’s test. They hold that level for another two years while they take more classes, after which they can apply for their license. Students can alternatively go through a technical school's accreditation program, take classes and work for a company that sponsors them.
Even with some larger companies offering $12,000 sign-on bonuses, pension plans and insurance to entice workers, there is still a shortage, said Riley, who has also offered $3,000 and $4,000 sign-on bonuses in the past. And the shortage persists even as women are increasingly encouraged to work in the male-dominated field. (Zippia, a career site, reports that just 3.5% of plumbers in the United States are women.)
Don Concascia, principal of Norwich Technical High School, said there is a shortage of all types of tradespeople, which he attributes to a lack of apprentice opportunities.
In some trades — such as plumbing, HVAC, carpentry and electrical — students can earn over $20 an hour while an apprentice and well into six figures once they have their licenses, Concascia said.
“The ratio of journeymen to apprentices needs to improve,” he said.
He added this shortage leads to a lack of competition, which enables tradespeople to demand very high fees for their services. Oftentimes, “homeowners can’t find a person to fix problems that they cannot complete on their own.”
"The worker shortage in residential construction is severely hurting housing supply and especially affordability,” said Norton Wheeler, the newly elected president of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Eastern Connecticut and owner of Mystic River Building Company.
To solve this crisis, he said his association is working with Home Builders Institute, which is a part of the National Association of Home Builders. The Home Builders Institute “is working to provide curriculum and grant monies to incentivize public high schools and technical schools to offer pre-apprenticeship career paths into the trades,” he said.
“The fact of the matter is, we just need more qualified workers, period,” Wheeler said. “And we don't really care where they come from, as long as they have a good work ethic and we can communicate with them.”