Reversing the Industry’s Depletion of Basic 
Plumbing Skills

The Copper Development Association (CDA) has helped teach hundreds of thousands of plumbing professionals how to handle and correctly install copper piping.

“If we put everyone on the same educational path, we’re not going to have the economy, strength or success that our country has come to expect.”

The plumbing industry’s labor shortage is common knowledge, but are changes in training techniques as well known? Across North America, plumbers are increasingly entering the workforce with little or no ability to solder and braze metal piping systems. In some ways, this simply reflects industry changes to less skill-intensive joining methods that many times bring additional benefits like being heat or flame-free. However, these joining methods can’t be used everywhere – temperature, pressure or other system limitations may require more robust piping materials and joints. So these are skills that all members of the industry should possess. To protect the credibility, scope of capability and reliability of the industry, tradespeople new and old must learn how to handle and correctly install copper piping systems.

Less Workers, More Work

It’s no secret the plumbing industry – like nearly every other construction sector – is experiencing a severe skilled labor shortage. The “college for all” mentality has pushed many young Americans into the secondary education system, indirectly hiding viable trade careers from consideration. In 2016, around 40 percent of 25 to 29-year-olds held a bachelor’s degree or higher. This is a stark comparison to the “Baby Boom” generation where it was 21 percent. Now in 2019, roughly two-thirds of high school teens plan to attend college after graduation.

However, as the worker pool shrinks the opportunities continue to increase. Over the next several years, the construction industry as a whole is expected to grow annually at a rate of 4.5 percent or faster. The pipefitting industry specifically is expected to grow 16 percent from 2016 to 2026. Additionally, as North America faces an impending infrastructure crisis, more work will present itself nationwide. Overall, this type of environment is an opportunity for young or new plumbing professionals to hone their skills, prove their worth, and provide a highly-sought service.

An Erosion of Basic Plumbing Skills

As the labor shortage continues, project timelines and costs have become tighter and tighter. In response, contractors are increasingly employing labor saving strategies like installing push-connect plastic systems. As a result, unseasoned plumbing professionals are not learning the basics of pipefitting: soldering and brazing.

While plastic is used for residential use, the majority of commercial and industrial jobs consider copper the standard. Copper has a 50-year limited warranty, it doesn’t leach dangerous chemicals, it won’t give off toxic fumes during a fire, and it cannot be permeated by outside contaminants or substances. If pipefitting professionals do not possess soldering and brazing skills in addition to the skills to use the newer, flame-free joining methods, they may not be qualified to work on commercial or industrial projects, limiting their potential earning and career prospects.

Learn the Steps with the CDA

The Copper Development Association (CDA) has helped teach hundreds of thousands of plumbing professionals across the country and world how to handle and correctly install copper piping using all types of joining methods to create leak-free, strong connections. In fact, for over 40 years, the CDA has engaged with manufacturers and end users of copper-based products.

CDA also provides free online resources, like the Copper Tube Handbook and an ongoing how-to YouTube video series “Do it Proper with Copper” that walks through correct installation demonstrations step-by-step, as well as explains incorrect practices.

Beyond these resources, CDA’s team of plumbing and pipefitting professionals regularly visit United Association (UA) local unions, PHCC chapters and vocational schools to conduct training courses and skills competitions. These efforts help teach entry-level professionals the basics while also reinforcing correct installation technique for more seasoned plumbers. On average, CDA conducts 60 to 70 training programs a year for union and non-union apprentices.

CDA also provides installation and design courses as part of the UA’s annual Instructor Training Program (ITP), such as Copper Piping Systems, Advanced Installations, Special Design, and Safe Operations. These programs keep instructors up-to-date on proper installation techniques and new joining systems entering the market, such as copper press-connect technology, helping to ensure they have the latest skills and information to instruct the next generations.

To learn more about copper piping and installation best practices, visit copper.org.

Andrew G. Kireta Jr. is vice president of the Copper Development Association Inc. (CDA). Kireta is responsible for the use of copper and copper alloy systems and products in building construction applications, including plumbing, mechanical and architectural systems.

Copper Development Association Training Images

Article and images courtesy of Copper Development Association.

Video from Copper Development Association: Closing the Gap on Labor Shortage

Copper Proficiency = Career Opportunities

In the coming years, there will be abundant opportunities for plumbing and pipefitting professionals to secure reliable, high-paying work. However, if proper soldering, brazing and other basic industry skills are never acquired it may limit those opportunities. To best position themselves and ensure the credibility of the industry, new professionals must acquire a working knowledge of copper piping and its diverse, durable and efficient installation methods.

We need to start looking at a properly skilled labor force as a valuable part of society needed for our country to succeed. It’s important to understand that going from high school into a four-year college is not the only path. In fact, if we put everyone on the same educational path, we’re not going to have the economy, strength or success that our country has come to expect. States, communities, local officials, and even parents need to begin thinking about how to support trade programs. These are well-paying, long-lasting, and important jobs that are crucial to our way of life.

About the Copper Development Association

The Copper Development Association is the information, education, market and technical development arm of the copper, brass and bronze industries in North America. Learn more at their blog, thinkcopper.org. Follow them on Twitter at twitter.com/thinkcopper.

Quick Takes

For quick information specific to the plumbing, heating and air industries, visit the Copper Development Association page on this site, Southern PHC.