Shortage of Plumbers—What Shortage?

December 20, 2018  |  Articles

Massachusetts, and the Boston area in particular, has one of the highest rates of unfilled construction jobs in the country. As they try to staff up to meet surging demand amid a red-hot construction market, many contractors are singing the blues. But not GBPCA contractors that work with Plumbers Local 12.

“We don’t have a shortage of workers,” says Harry Brett, business manager for Local 12. According to a famous movie line, if you build it, they will come. The union finds that if it offers decent wages and benefits, a steady stream of people will come to Local 12—and they will help build any project, large or small, for GBPCA contractors. “We have plenty of applicants for our apprentice program,” Brett adds. “They know that they are applying for a lifelong, prosperous career, not just a job.”

Conversely, non-union shops are having difficulty finding help, especially in such a tight labor market. With the unemployment rate hovering around 3.5% in Massachusetts, it’s hard for any business to attract workers. For plumbing contractors that don’t provide generous compensation or benefits, it can be doubly hard.

Typically in the non-union world, plumbers who want to save for retirement would have to set up their own 401(k) plan and use their own pay to fund it. Likewise, health insurance premiums would be deducted from their wages. “That’s not the way it works for plumbers that work for our contractors,” says Jeremy Ryan, executive director for the GBPCA. “They are fairly paid, get great benefits, and work on projects where safety is paramount.”

“When I bid on jobs, I don’t have to worry about how we would staff them, because I know I can call Local 12 and get qualified plumbers,” says John Marani, president of AH Burns Company. “It is one of the advantages of being a signatory contractor with Local 12.”

To meet the growing need for plumbers and gasfitters, Local 12 has expanded its apprentice program. At 300, the most recent class of incoming apprentices is double the size of the group five years ago. The training center has added instructors and now offers more classes at more hours of the day. The local is renovating a building on its campus that will include an additional classroom and shop for the center.

A couple of years ago, Local 12 created a residential division. It has broadened the scope of the union’s work to include projects such as the many mid-rise, wood-frame apartment buildings that developers are constructing throughout the area. It has also allowed Local 12 to open its door even wider and bring in new members.

With an influx of new residents pouring into the region, the need for housing has intensified. For example, Mayor Martin J. Walsh recently increased his call for new housing units in Boston from 53,000 to 69,000 by 2030. The residential division is enabling the local to help meet the demand.

Recognizing the benefits of partnering with Local 12 (which includes access to a highly trained pool of mechanics—a valuable commodity in the current construction labor landscape), more shops have signed on recently with the union. “They see opportunity for growth,” explains Brett. “We are growing together.”