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Solutions for the Labor Shortage: How Manufacturers Can Help

Our guests on this week’s episode are spearheading an important solution: the construction industry’s labor shortage problem. It's a fascinating episode about partnerships, skilled trades and the future of labor in the construction industry.

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Photo of Beth PopNikolov
by Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov
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More About This Episode

The Smarter Building Materials Marketing podcast helps industry professionals find better ways to grow leads, sales and outperform the competition. It’s designed to give insights on how to create a results-driven digital marketing strategy for companies of any size.

This week, Spencer Brown, Director of Sales for Pfister Faucets, and Kevin Johnson, President of CHS Plumbing, talked with Zach and Beth about what manufacturers and their customers (the contractors they work with) can do to support each other in today’s building industry. The strategies we discussed help ensure the future of construction and labor in the industry.

Innovating Ideas in Today’s Plumbing Industry

Spencer Brown is the Director of Sales for Pfister Faucets, a plumbing manufacturer that’s been around for a few decades. “Pfister's been around for a little over 100 years, and I've been on them with 23, so it's been a pretty exciting ride,” Spencer says.

Pfister has been working on solutions to support their customers — contractors and plumbers — and there are initiatives within the company to bring education and training to those in the plumbing trade. We brought Spencer on to talk more about the program, along with Kevin Johnson, President of CHS Plumbing, a commercial plumbing contractor business that partners with Pfister.

Pfister has been working on a creative project, partnering with passionate plumbers like Kevin to help bring in the next generation of the trade.

“So it started with COVID, ironically,” Spencer explains. “I think a lot of us can probably understand what I'm talking about. We were sitting at home, out of sync a little bit, and we had to get used to the new way. We had no idea how long it was going to be, but it gave me a lot of time to evaluate the Pfister brand and what we can do differently once we get out of this pandemic.”

Even before the pandemic, there was a problem in the plumbing industry — the perception of the plumber as a skilled trade. “Plumbers are the lifeblood of our success. Without them, we don't stay in business,” says Spencer.

But the labor shortage has taken an especially harsh toll on the plumbing trade, and Spencer saw the need to repair that. “We needed to find a way to capture some trust and respect with these plumbers,” he said.

He asked Pfister’s customers what their number one issue is when it comes to staying in business. “They all said the same thing. They wish they had more help,” says Spencer. “They would do more work, have more projects if they had more labor.”

Of course, labor is a nationwide issue because of the pandemic and a retiring labor pool, and Pfister made it a mission to alleviate pain points however possible. “I looked at how can we help that situation, as well as help our brand,” says Spencer.

Stopping the Labor Shortage

One of the first things Pfister set out to do was shift the perception of plumbing as a trade. “Plumbers have a perception problem when it comes to who a plumber is,” explains Spencer. “I think that's one of the many obstacles of why this next generation is not getting into the trade.”

For Spencer, the solution was simple: Plumbers just needed a place to tell their story. “I remember talking to all these plumbers and seeing what they do. They're very successful. They love their job,” says Spencer. “So that's where the name American Plumber Stories came about.”

The show, hosted by country singer Craig Morgan, is an opportunity to showcase the plumbing industry and have professionals tell their stories. “We were going to create a show that plumbers today can tell their story, showcase some of their highlights of what they do in life and show that this is a great profession to be in,” explains Spencer.

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Through the series, Pfister works alongside plumbers to bring more people into the trade and create awareness around the benefits of the profession.

One of the construction industry’s biggest issues in the last few years has been recruiting, but manufacturers like Pfister understand that part of the issue is reaching a broader demographic. “Construction has gotten in on that trend, with programs and incentives aimed at attracting new workers to the industry, regardless of their gender or cultural background,” according to Zachary Phillips for Construction Dive.

American Plumber Stories features videos and profiles of plumbing professionals from around the country with the goal of inspiring and entertaining future generations of plumbers. Spencer wanted to focus on plumbers who have a story to tell. “They all have these unique hobbies we want to showcase,” he explains.

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American Plumbers Stories showcases the plumber as the hero of that story. “They're the ones who are the leaders in this show to look up to. So we're using them to be the ones to be looked up to because they're role models for the younger generation,” says Spencer.

Finding Plumbers for the Plumbers

One of the most important messages Pfister wants to come across is the appeal of a job in the skilled trades. “There is a perception that you have to go to college to get a good job. Well, that's not the way it is anymore. So we have to communicate that and change the system,” says Spencer.

There are exciting things planned for season two of American Plumber Stories. “On the episode coming up, we're in a school system in Philadelphia. This is the first-ever building trade program for middle school. And it's just amazing to see what these kids are doing,” says Spencer. “This school is the benchmark where I think a lot of schools should be doing and probably will be doing once they see the show.”

The initiative from Pfister couldn’t have come at a better time for Kevin Johnson, President of CHS Plumbing. “We were literally living the nightmare of a number of plumbers coming of age and retiring and very few people replacing them,” says Kevin. “So that became a challenge for us. We needed people, we needed plumbers.”

A career in the skilled trades can be lucrative for younger generations, but the benefits of a plumbing job might be lost on today's tech-savvy students who often expect careers to be more computer-based.

The team at CHS Plumbing realized if they wanted to reach high school students, they’d need to go to them. “So we came across, for starters, a technological school that piggybacks with some of the high schools here locally in Phoenix,” says Kevin. “What they're doing is, those who are interested in it spend about half of their time in the tech school, learning plumbing, electrical, welding, a number of different trades, and then they can figure out what direction is interesting to them.”

The program is an internship, where “they spent half of their days working with our company. So they were having this earn-while-you-learn concept. That was very attractive to a lot of them,” says Kevin.

In the last few years, they’ve attracted 15 students who are on their way to becoming full-time plumbers out of high school. “So they've already picked up basically two years of that requirement while going to high school, graduating from high school, and then moving on,” explains Kevin.

Because of that success, Kevin and CHS Plumbing developed other programs for students still interested in college. “They were spending their time during the day as a plumber apprentice in order to pay their bills and make things work,” says Kevin. “A couple are doing CAD design, so that's where they're going to be. But we require that in our sophisticated business, CAD design, on every project we do. So there's a niche for them within our company, as well as others.”

Want Even More Insight?

Manufacturers have the opportunity to help the trades in similar ways. “So as we've come out of this and started showcasing what we're doing, the amount of other manufacturers that have reached out to us has just been incredible,” says Spencer. “They've asked how they can be a part of it because they obviously see it, too.”

The future of the industry is dependent on these kinds of partnerships and education initiatives — you can learn more at AmericanPlumberStories.com.

Be sure to listen to the full episode for more ideas and insights, and leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts!