The U.S. Has a Skilled Tradesman Problem Including a Lack of Plumbers

The United States has a long, proud tradition of skilled tradesmen, who helped build the nation, but in 2022 there is a lack of these important professionals, and the plumbing industry is no exception.

The National Association of Home Builders surveyed single-family builders last year and found that 84 percent reported a shortage of plumbing subcontractors.

“There is a shortage of skilled tradespeople, including plumbers, throughout the American economy,” said Tradesmen International in March. [Contractors] are faced with gaps in their workforce that have been extremely difficult to fill. The plumber shortage also increases labor costs and makes it more difficult for contractors to bid on new projects.  

Lack of Plumbing Professionals Part of a Trend

Plumbers are not the only tradesmen in short supply as there is a subcontractor shortage across the nation in just about all areas.

The National Association of Home Builders found in 2021 that the percent of U.S. builders reporting shortages of subcontractors was:

  • Carpenters (framing) 94 percent
  • Carpenters (rough) 93 percent
  • Carpenters (finished) 90 percent
  • Bricklayers/Mason 84 percent
  • Plumbers 83 percent
  • Concrete workers 83 percent
  • Electricians 82 percent
  • Drywall workers 81 percent
  • HVAC workers 80 percent
  • Painters 79 percent
  • Floor installers 79 percent
  • Roofers 72 percent
  • Excavators 70 percent
  • Weatherization 63 percent
  • Maintenance 57 percent

2021 Median Pay for Plumbers was $59,880

The plumbing shortage comes at a time when demand for plumbers is up with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that the job outlook for skilled plumbers to grow by 5 percent (some 23,400 more jobs) through 2030.

The federal government notes that most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters learn on the job through apprenticeship. Some attend a vocational-technical school before receiving on-the-job training. Most states require plumbers to be licensed.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there were 469,900 plumbers in the U.S. in 2020 with the average pay $28.79 per hour or $59,880 per year.

The federal government says that there will be about 51,000 openings for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters each year on average over the next decade with the most of the openings as a result of the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

How COVID-19 Increased the Demand for Plumbers

Part of the plumber shortage can be traced to increased demand for the tradesmen during the COVID-19 pandemic as Americans did projects at home and remodeled in record numbers.

Harvard University researchers found that Americans spent nearly $420 billion on their homes in 2020 during the first year of the pandemic.

“Homeowners are making up for lost time by hiring home-related contract workers at a furious pace,” said Yahoo News. “Yet like many other industries, there seems to be an insufficient pool of qualified workers in the plumbing field.”

Why are There So Few Plumbers?

A Pennsylvania service provider across multiple trades recently asked the question “why are there so few plumbers?”, especially when plumbing training pays decent wages.

“Jobs in plumbing are growing. The number of people entering those jobs is shrinking,” said AQM. “In high-demand areas, top plumbers are turning away jobs. But plumbing is a necessity, not a luxury, and this pattern cannot continue.”

There are several reasons for the dearth of plumbers, including:

  • Retirement of Baby Boomers: Industrial Safety & Hygiene News said in 2019 that “there aren’t enough young people entering the trades to replace the aging Baby Boomers leaving the workforce. For every one person that enters the trades, five retire.” More students than ever are opting for college which leaves fewer young people interested in the trades. In fact, many schools have stopped offering shop and mechanical classes.
  • Lack of Training Opportunities: The lack of schools offering trade skills translates into fewer training opportunities for young people to become plumbers. Another pipeline that is slowing down is the number of the younger generation taking over family plumbing businesses as consolidation in the industry has resulted in fewer “mom-and-pop” operations.
  • Those That Want to Work are Not Prepared: Some young people that want to start apprenticeships in plumbing do not have the life skill sets needed to start the job. PBS reported that work ethic and prior behavior is a problem for some applicants with one contractor saying, “You would be amazed how many people we want to hire, but our insurance company won’t insure them because of driving violations, drugs, can’t keep a job. You see some applicants come in here in a ripped t-shirt, and haven't shaved. You go out, look at his car and it’s full of garbage. It hasn’t been washed in a month. Those are the things we look at.”
  • Plumbing Does Not Have a Glamourous Reputation: That same PBS article said that some plumbers today can make as much as $200,000 a year or more but that there is a perception of the industry as being very hard. “There’s a stigma that goes along with getting your hands dirty, just a plumber, not a person, just a plumber. And I don’t want to be that guy.”

How to Inspire the Next Generation of Plumbers

Plumbing and Mechanical says to solve the plumber shortage, it will start with education.

“To address the shortage of skilled tradesmen, it is critical that those entering the field are knowledgeable and well-equipped to handle the systems, materials and products of today,” said the publication while stressing the importance of veteran plumbers being willing to teach the next generation. “If no one is willing to teach the next generation, there will not be anyone left to do the job.”

Changing the perception of plumbing is also high on the agenda.

“In addition to providing education, it’s important to dispel the negative stigma surrounding the different construction trades,” said the publication.