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Long Island facing a plumber shortage as baby boomers retire

Plumbers have more work than they can handle, but say they have trouble enticing young people to learn the trade — despite a median annual wage of $95,010.

Plumbers Juan Cruz, left, and Don Conway run

Plumbers Juan Cruz, left, and Don Conway run pipe for a steam radiator on the second floor of a home in Hicksville on Nov. 28, 2017. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

If you live on Long Island and are having trouble finding a plumber, you are not alone. Much like the nation, the Island has a shortage of plumbers, according to labor experts and plumbers.

One of the key reasons is their thinning ranks caused by waves of Baby Boomer retirements. Long Island’s plumbing industry averages 270 job openings a year; 190 are new jobs created by growth, said Shital Patel, labor-market analyst in the state Labor Department’s Hicksville office. But 80 of them on average, or about 30 percent, are vacancies mostly due to retirements.

“This industry will be struggling with the aging of its workforce,” Patel said.

Ironically, plumbing is one of the fastest-growing professions on Long Island. Between 2014 and 2024, the number of plumbers on the Island is expected to swell 32 percent, Labor Department data show. The Island currently has 5,990 plumbers.

Still, demand is outstripping the supply, several local plumbers said. That demand is being driven by new construction and the aging of the housing stock on Long Island, the country’s oldest suburb. Those factors have created a steady demand for plumbing installations, maintenance and repairs.

At the same time, too few young people are entering the industry, the plumbers said.

The upshot, they said, is that they have more work than they can handle, something that hurts their bottom line.

“I turn away a couple of jobs a month,” said Donald Conway, 52, owner of Essex Plumbing and Heating in Wantagh whose specialties include installing hot water heaters, boilers, radiant heat and tubs.

“If I had more qualified employees, we would be able to take on more work,” said Conway, who is vice president of the Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors of Long Island trade group.

Joseph Cornetta, 57, co-owner of Cornetta Bros. Inc. in Elmont and president of the local plumbing group, said he, too, has to pass up some jobs, especially when the customers are millennials. “They don’t want to wait,” said Cornetta. “Because of that, I don’t have enough staff to take on all the work.”

The company’s specialties include installing steam boilers and gas piping for stoves and dryers.

A shortage of help has made it difficult for Ed Schoen, owner of Prestige Heating Service Inc. in Massapequa, to rebuild his business back to where it was before superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, when he lost two of his three trucks to flooding. He now has two trucks and two employees. He would like to double both.

“I could expand more if there were more people interested in learning the trade, ” said Schoen, whose business services and installs such things as oil and gas boilers, water heaters and radiant-heat systems.

Cornetta, whose business employs 12, said he has been able to find just two qualified workers in the past two years, when he was prepared to hire twice that number.

New York State requires plumbers to be licensed, but local municipalities issue the licenses. For example, to be licensed in Hempstead Town a would-be plumber has to work at least seven years with a licensed plumber and pass a test, said spokesman Mike Deery.

Having to shell out fees for multiple licenses to work on Long Island also affects the number of plumbers, said Sal Manzo, a former secretary for the local plumbers group and the owner of Sal Manzo Plumbing & Heating in Wantagh.

Businesses have trouble not only finding skilled employees but also holding onto them as some gain experience and then opt to go into business for themselves or join the staff of municipalities or bigger companies.

“Good help is hard to find and harder to keep,” Schoen said.

So he offers incentives. For example, he starts the day at 9:30 instead of 8 a.m.

“The guys seem to like that,” he said.

He also gives them weekends off and generally handles emergencies himself during that time unless something “really severe” happens.

“If it keeps the guys happy and wanting to work here, it’s a good thing,” he said.

Conway and Schoen scour their personal networks for candidates. Schoen, who coaches in a Massapequa area hockey league, puts the word out there. Conway says he inquires at supply houses, talks to the friends of his three high school children and to the teens on the football and lacrosse teams he coaches.

They both have had some success through networking. But their efforts don’t always pay off because plumbing’s image makes many young people shy away, Conway said.

“The big problem in the plumbing industry is that it’s not neat and clean work, and that turns off a lot of millennials,” Conway said.

But he added, “You can get benefits, and everyone is doing 401(k)s. The more you know, the more you can make.”

In fact, Long Island’s plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters, as the broader category is called, earn a median annual salary of $95,010, according to state data. That’s more than twice the Island’s overall median salary of $42,970.

Schoen believes the solution to the shortage lies in talking to high school students regularly about opportunities in plumbing.

“We have got to get kids into this business,” he said. “Everyone thinks that only a bachelor’s degree is the key to success.”

The executive vice president of the national plumbers’ association, in an article directed to the members earlier this year, emphasized the need for wider participation in solving the shortage.

“We need a movement: A cultural shift in which parents, guidance counselors and others do not view vocational skilled-trades education and apprenticeships as a second option to going to college,” Michael Copp wrote.

Meanwhile, the calls keep coming.

“When it gets cold,” Schoen said, “all hell breaks loose.”

Fast Fact

$95,010

Median annual wage of Long Island’s 5,990 plumbers, pipefitters and steamfittersSource: New York State Labor Department

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