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Online learning program hopes to help ease plumber shortage

The digital training option makes it easier for apprentices, on their way to becoming licensed plumbers, to complete required class instruction while they are working full-time jobs.

Apprentice plumber James Burns does online course work

Apprentice plumber James Burns does online course work at Pat Dolan Plumbing in Massapequa. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Every week apprentice James Burns sets aside his plumbing tools for an hour or more to delve into the digital side of his profession.

Burns, 30, logs onto a computer once or twice a week at his employer, Pat Dolan Plumbing in Massapequa, and begins the course work that will ultimately allow him to obtain his journeyman’s card, sort of a coming of age in the plumbing world.

Until earlier this year Burns’ options for such a course of study would have been largely limited to a brick-and-mortar program generally offered in the evening.

The program, known as the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association e-Learning Apprenticeship Academy debuted in March. The state education and labor departments have accepted the plumbing online curriculum as a substitute for classroom instruction.

The new initiative takes aim at a chronic problem on Long Island and statewide: a shortage of plumbers. The primary causes are the waves of Baby Boomer retirements and the entry of too few young people to take the seniors’ place. Nearly 18 percent, or 1,200 plumbers on Long Island, are 55 and older, said Shital Patel, labor-market analyst in the state Labor Department’s Hicksville office.

“The industry will struggle with the impending wave of retirements and the insufficient number of millennials entering the skilled trades,” Patel said.

Meanwhile, the number of job openings in the industry continues to swell. The Island’s plumbing industry averages 270 job openings a year, including 80, or almost a third, due to retirements, Patel said. The rest, 190, stem from growth.

Local plumbing businesses continue to bemoan how hard it is to find enough skilled workers.

“We are interviewing all the time,” said Deborah O’Reilly, office manager at Pat Dolan Plumbing. “A lot of the young people aren’t going into the trade as much as you would have seen 10 or 20 years ago.”

So local plumbers are hoping the e-learning academy, which is run by the PHCC Educational Foundation, can reverse that. The national foundation teamed with the PHCC state chapter to get state approval for the program. The chronic shortage of plumbers has kindled states’ interest in the online program, which is combined with on-the-job training, plumbing officials said.

“As the shortage of skilled workers becomes more critical in the plumbing, heating and cooling industry, the states are more willing to accept online training as an option,” said Cindy Sheridan, chief operating officer of the foundation, based in Falls Church, Virginia.

About 450 apprentices nationwide are enrolled in the four-year e-learning program, she said.

The online program doesn’t shorten the course requirements. In fact, since New York’s plumbing apprenticeship programs require five years of instruction, apprentices in the state must do an additional year of off-line training. The final year includes such things as federal safety regulations and sexual harassment training, said Al Esposito, former owner of a Farmingdale plumbing company and the current chair of the state e-learning program.

Apprentices enrolled in the program must be employed at least 40 hours a week by a master plumber who sponsors them. Burns is sponsored by his employer, Pat Dolan, who not only gives him access to a computer but pays for the course, which is $1,695 a year for PHCC members and $2,695 for nonmembers.

“I am very grateful that my company pays me to come in here and study during business hours,” Burns said.

Apprentices who obtain a journeyman card can earn more money and can work longer periods on the job without the presence of a licensed master plumber, said Pat Dolan, who is president of his company. In some cases they can apply locally for a limited plumber’s license. In New York licenses are issued by local municipalities.

The state and national PHCC chapters keep track of the apprentices’ progress through the program’s four courses, each of which is equivalent to a year of instruction. Burns, who started the program about a month ago, was able to skip the first year after doing well on a placement test.

Previously apprentices had to hit the books in a classroom at a local community college or in the training facilities of a local plumbers’ group, after toiling more than 10 hours at work.

“The vast majority of apprentices … might not be able to go to school after working all day,” Sheridan said.

Burns, who often works 50 to 60 hours a week, agrees.

“It’s hard to work this job and go home and study,” Burns said. He has worked for Pat Dolan Plumbing for nearly three years.

The certificates that apprentices can print out after completing the courses give them a leg up in job hunting, some plumbers said.

“A better candidate comes into my company rather than someone walking off the street,” Esposito said.

Some said the e-learning program will ensure more staying power for young plumbers in the industry.

Long Island PHCC president Joseph Cornetta, of Cornetta Bros., an Elmont plumbing and heating company, said one of his employees will enroll in August.

“It benefits me as a business owner because now I have this young individual not only showing up for work every day, but he is learning, and I don’t worry about losing him.”

Email Dorothy Reddy at dreddy@nysphcc.org for more details about enrolling in the e-Learning Apprenticeship Academy.

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