If you’re looking to learn a trade or make a career move, might it be wise to consider enrolling in Howard Community College’s plumbing apprenticeship program? One person to ask is Michael Martirano, superintendent of the Howard County Public School System.

Martirano once had the same position in St. Mary’s County, in Southern Maryland, where he “met many people who worked at Pax River (Naval Air Station Patuxent River), contractors, education professionals and others in a variety of businesses,” he said, “but do you know who within my circle made the most money?

“My plumber.”

To hear Martirano and many others in the field tell it, the money is there. However, like other professions and skilled trades, the plumbing industry is addressing a worker shortage that could get worse before it improves.

Nine, so far

For instance, Tom Albert, vice present of operations of Lloyd Plumbing, of Columbia, said if plumbers continue to retire at their current rate without enough journeymen entering the pipeline, there could be repercussions, especially in the residential market.

“I think the Bell Curve is rising and we haven’t plateaued, but right now for every five craftsmen retiring, only two are being replaced,” said Albert. “That’s the scary part, because as retirements happen, no one is filling the empty shoes.”

Hence the importance of the HCC program, which is approaching its second year. And know that the money is there for student apprentices: According to Associated Builders and Contractors of Greater Baltimore, the average journeyman’s rate for all skilled trades is $33.50 an hour, which equates to $70,000 per year.

Concerning the shortage of plumbers, Jeff Richmond, director of apprenticeship and workforce innovation at HCC, said that while the students who enter the apprenticeship program “learn on the job, which dovetails with learning in the classroom. The idea is to earn while they learn.”

Throughout the four years of the program, apprentices are taught on the job, then hands-on in HCC’s new on-campus lab and in the classroom about topics ranging from plumbing math to blueprint drawings to distribution systems, plus ethics and soft skills.

Upon completion of the program, apprentices can earn up to 24 college credits that can be transferred to HCC for an associate in applied science degree in skilled building trades. As for the early returns, the initial cohort began in fall 2022 and included “nine apprentices who finished the first year of the program and all are expected to return this fall,” said Richmond.

The second cohort begins in January. The full swing of recruiting with ABC occurs via information sessions with high school students, college students, people seeking career paths and career changers. “We’d love to have 16 to 20 students for the next cohort,” Richmond said.

Like many institutions, Anne Arundel Community College is also addressing the shortage. It offers training via two options: a 200-hour pre-apprenticeship program, which encompasses teaching technical skills and workplace essentials that kicked off in January 2022 with the opening of its Clausen Center for Innovation & Skilled Trades.

The second option is to enroll in a plumbing apprenticeship program, which is conducted by the ABC Chesapeake Shores Chapter. AACC provides the instruction and ABC “sponsors the students and connects them with a member,” said Sandy Jones, “Then it monitors the student’s progress, work hours, instruction, soft skills,” etc.

But as appealing as that opportunity sounds, it’s “still a challenge getting students signed up with all the trades,” said Jones, “due to the misconception that careers in the trades are dirty work, only for blue-collar workers, they can’t make a good living,” etc.,” she said. “It’s hard overcoming that stigma.”

Skip college?

It’s a familiar refrain today, as “Every educational system has programs to train people in different crafts and they’re all experiencing a shortfall,” said Albert. Why? “Because for years the school systems directed kids to college and away from trades.”

However, that directive may be changing, as HCC Vice President of Workforce, Innovation and Strategic Partnerships Minah Woo “introduced us to Stephanie Discepolo of the Howard County Public School System,” he said. “Stephanie recognized that the situation meant the kids could join various apprenticeship programs and earn while they learn. And that’s made all of the difference.”

That led to HCC establishing programs for various skill trades, including plumbing. “If we can make it go, it will be a model for the state and perhaps the country,” said Albert.

So the apprentices work toward getting their journeyman’s license, “which is equivalent to a college degree ― with no debt ― plus you have skills and can go for a master’s,” said Albert. “Their salaries would start at about $65,000. We have plumbers who are working overtime who make six figures.”

Also, it’s not a question of earning college credits or not.

“One of the misconceptions of registered apprenticeship is that the apprentices are not college students,” said Chris Hadfield, vice president of workforce for ABC Greater Baltimore. “So when an 18-year-old isn’t sure what they want to do, they can earn 24 college credits as an apprentice at no cost, while earning money and getting full benefits. Then if desired, they can get 36 more credits and complete an associate degree.

“It’s great that the community colleges are getting more involved. We’re also starting the same ABC Greater Baltimore Plumbing Apprenticeship Program at Harford Community College,” said Hadfield, “and will hopefully add more schools, specifically in plumbing.”

‘Best friends’

With the plumbing program well underway, Richmond discussed the coming addition of HCC’s approximately $42 million Skilled Trades Center, as well as the new Plumbing Lab that was paid for via a grant from the Maryland State Department of Education.

That addition was a bonus after the challenges of setting up a new program.

“It’s hard to start a new program,” he said. “Combining school and work is a heavy lift, especially when the apprentices have to learn industry regulations, understand code, how to read blueprints, etc., for the commercial and home markets.”

But Richmond also feels that the tides are turning concerning the perceptions of plumbing and other trades as viable career options.

“The conversation is switching the strict desire for a four-year degree as opposed to skilled labor,” he said, “because these trades will always be in demand.

“And just think,” he said with a knowing smile, “they’ll be best friends with everyone because everyone needs skilled laborers.”