For about 20 years, the most persistent problem facing sheet metal contractors has been the skilled-labor shortage. Talented young people have been forsaking industry careers for a variety of reasons that have been detailed many times in the trade press: the work is hard and unglamorous, school counselors turn their noses up, etc.
But now, for a brief moment - who knows how long it will last - it may be possible to turn this situation around. The mainstream news media is filled with stories lamenting the outsourcing of jobs to low-cost foreign countries. Long an unpleasant fact to factory workers, the outsourcing phenomenon lately has unleashed a tidal wave of angst among white-collar workers as well.
Everyone from semiskilled call-center employees to computer programmers, engineers and accountants has found they are increasingly replaceable by bargain-basement people willing and able to do the job from thousands of miles away. Suddenly, it seems that nobody's job is safe.
Except that's an exaggeration. Certain types of jobs will never be outsourced. Some types of work demand face-to-face customer contact or on-site manual labor. Plumbers, pipe fitters and HVAC service technicians are among those who have jobs that cannot be done from remote locations.
Nor, when you think it through, can these jobs really be handled by cheap immigrant labor. I know there are parts of the country where that seems to be happening, but while undocumented immigrants may be fulfilling the roles, they are merely masquerading as plumbers, pipe fitters and service technicians. Many are lowly paid task workers hired by desperate contractors who can't find any American citizens to do the work.
Attractive optionsThis is a shame. Construction jobs in general and sheet metal in particular offer some of the most attractive career options not requiring a college degree. Moreover, trade apprentices get paid a real living wage to learn their craft rather than shell out tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.
That's why I've never understood why construction careers have been such a hard sell. The surge of publicity about outsourcing may give training programs the added firepower to attract the kind of people needed. Young people today want to know not only what the job entails, but also whether the jobs will be around 10 years from now.
The employment picture in construction looks a lot sharper than for many other industries. According to U.S. government statistics, from February 2003 to February 2004, construction employment grew by 128,000, outpacing that of all other U.S. industries combined, which added only 113,000 in the same period. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a surge of 37 percent in the demand for HVAC technicians and installers between 2002 and 2012, while the need for plumbers, pipe fitters and steam fitters is expected to grow by 23 percent in the same period.
Employment opportunities have always exceeded the norm in these industries. The construction trades have languished with a reputation as a place for those who couldn't make the grades to get into college. Though always a false picture, the trades now shine brighter in contrast to many more so-called "glamorous" positions that are disappearing faster than you can say "transcontinental telecommunications."
Why?There is something that doesn't make economic sense about the HVAC industry's persistent skilled-labor shortage that is now well into a second decade. Classic economic theory holds that where shortages exist, compensation levels will rise until reaching equilibrium. That is where there are as many people as needed in a given job category. Then, when the supply shoots past demand, wages and benefits recede.
Yet, wage growth has not kept pace with burgeoning demand in the HVAC sector. If it had, there would be no skilled-labor shortage. Most industry surveys show average annual incomes between $35,000-$40,000 for nonunion plumbers, fitters and HVAC service techs. Depending on locale, union wages may go double that or beyond.
The nonunion compensation scales simply are not enough to make trade careers attractive to large numbers of smart young people. There are too many other ways to make $35,000 or $40,000 a year at jobs that are easier and cleaner.
Those who think sheet metal workers and HVAC service techs are worth no more than that will continue to have trouble attracting good ones, outsourcing or not. But for contractors with a better picture of their craft's value, the outsourcing debate couldn't come at a better time.
(Jim Olsztynski - pronounced Ol-stin-skee - is editor of Supply House Times, a sister publication of Snips. He can be reached at (630) 694-4006, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)