If you build it, they will plumb

June 28th, 2016

News Coverage:

June 23, 2016

If you build it, they will plumb

Linda Lipp | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Since the Fort Wayne Community Schools put out a call for help to create a lab for a new plumbing and HVAC program, some 15 to 20 builders, contractors and unions stepped up with $140,000 in cash and in-kind donations of equipment, materials and labor to make it happen.

In fact, although the school district thought it might take three years to get the needed donations, most of what was needed came together in just two weeks, said construction instructor Chris Roberts.

“Not a single business has turned us down,” he said.

The companies’ eagerness to help in part reflects the growing need for new workers to enter the construction trades.

“We’re feeling a shortage right now and as time progresses, it’s only going to get worse,” said Mike Kugler, of J.O. Mory, a plumbing and heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractor.

In some cases, as current workers age out of the profession, contractors are even having trouble expanding because they can’t hire the people they need to handle the work, said Larry Gerardot, principal of the FWCS Career Academy.

In plumbing, an estimated third of workers in Indiana are expected to retire in the next two years, said Jerry Korte, of Korte Does It All. “We’re not getting new ones in as fast as they are retiring,” he said.

That’s why FWCS has been looking to expand its construction trades programs for several years, Gerardot said. It finally got that chance when the school district bought a new building on Murray Street, near the Anthis Career Center, for the construction trades, and moved its existing programs there in January.

“Because we have the new space, we had room to add the HVAC/plumbing program,” Gerardot said.

The career academy already offers one- and two-year programs in other construction trades, including home building, carpentry, brick and block work and electrical.

“We have placed every student who wanted to leave the construction program as seniors and work in the field for the last three years,” Gerardot said.

In the past year and a half, Roberts said, the school program has fielded weekly calls from plumbing and HVAC contractors looking to hire, “so this program was essential,” he said.

Some students in the other construction trades classes have gone directly to work for contractors involved in residential construction, others have gone on to apprenticeship programs with the building trades unions that do commercial construction. Some are working and going to school at Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast at the same time, adding college credits to the dual high school/college credits they earned in high school.

“We try to offer kids lots of opportunities for next steps,” Gerardot said.

Trades such as plumbing, which may mean a worker gets a little dirty, fell out of favor for awhile, Kugler said. But now, students are learning they can earn a good living, without first accumulating a lot of college loan debt, and it’s beginning to look more attractive.

The build-out of the new HVAC/plumbing lab has just begun, but the work is scheduled to be finished before school starts in August. The new program can accept as many as 28 students; 18 already have enrolled, Gerardot said.

Among those donating supplies and labor to the project are the Home Builders Association and the bricklayers, carpenters and pipefitters unions. The HBA collected $11,000 to fund the SkillsUSA student organization that allows students to compete for scholarships and other awards; and has been busy the last few weeks getting donations of tools, supplies and other equipment for the new plumbing lab.

“It’s just been a tremendous support by the business community in the construction area here in Allen County,” Gerardot said. “We have been very appreciative of that.”