Pipe Dreams

Sean Gustaveson demonstrates the HoloLens, an augmented reality visual aid for plumbers, electricians and engineers.

Plumbers adapt to the knowledge economy. 

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Pacing in front of a row of urinals, Computer Aided Design detailer Sean Gustaveson looks through a pair of augmented reality glasses at a projected image that resembles the Windows 3D pipes screensaver. Life-sized green, red and blue pipes materialize in front of him, showing him exactly where to place each pipe in the building plan. 

Gustaveson was among group of group of plumbers, steamfitters and HVAC technicians who gathered last week in a steel tower inside the 100,000 square foot state-of-the-art Tualatin training center run by Local 290, the regional chapter of an international plumbers and steamfitters union.

Dressed in flannels and baseball caps, the instructors were eager to demonstrate state-of-the-art plumbing technology.

“The way I learned to do it was basically how they did it 50 years ago,” says Shane Ervin, a piping labor manager, referring to the plumbing industry’s longstanding resistance to change. Technological advances like the “HoloLens” are changing the game. “The last five years have been huge,” Ervin says.

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Instructors at Local 290’s training center demonstrate an emerging augmented reality technology.

These are boom times for the plumbing sector, as economic growth spawns hundreds of new office and residential projects and aging water and waste infrastructure get an overhaul. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment for plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters will grow 16% in the next 20 years, much faster than average.

Despite the rosy outlook, plumbers still struggle to overcome stereotypes associated with the profession. For generations, plumbing has been a gritty blue collar trade, and that image has persisted as knowledge economy jobs grab the headlines.

But as part of a broader effort to rebrand, a growing number of plumbers are embracing technological change.

It’s not an easy task. Plumbers are risk-averse, and for good reason, they say. You don’t want to experiment where toilets and wastewater are involved. Innovation for many longtime family-owned plumbing companies means texting and email.  

“We’re all about trying to protect customers,” says Ed Gormley, who has owned Portland-based Gormley Plumbing for 40 years. “Plumbers tend to not jump on the first widget that runs through the marketplace.” 

From civilization builders to plumber jokes 

Plumbers don’t exactly fit today’s innovation paradigm. But it wasn’t always that way. In the late-nineteenth century, plumbers were considered the standard bearers of civilization, at least according to an 1898 essay by contemporary architecture theorist Adolf Loos. 

Plumbers met basic needs for water and waste management, allowing cities to thrive and expand.   

“There would be no nineteenth century without the plumber,” Loos observed. 

Since then, enthusiasm for the plumber has waned considerably. Jobs in healthcare, tech and finance have wrested the spotlight from manufacturing and the trades. Higher education has become the ticket to success.  

The biggest problem is attracting and retaining talent. Millennials would rather code a webpage than fit a pipe.  

plumbing 3
Orbital Welding Instructor Glenn Monda teaches welding to plumbing and steamfitting apprentices.

The business of being a plumber 

At the Tualatin training center, the union plumbing instructors combat a few misconceptions about the trade. They say the satisfaction of working in the plumbers and steamfitters trade derives from its blend of the new and old: flashy software and hardware, as well as good old-fashioned grit.

“It’s not all just rolling around in the mud,” said Ervin, standing in a cavernous room full of boilers, sinks and pipes. He turned to Gustaveson. “When was the last time you got really muddy?” 

“Maybe two and a half years ago,” he responded.  

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Justin May (left), Plumber Program Coordinator for the training center, and Shane Ervin, Piping Labor Manager at Apollo Mechanical Contractors 

The training center teaches advanced math, said Justin May, the center’s plumber program coordinator, but only what you use in the real world. Plumbers have welding machines that make real-time computerized adjustments, and high-powered reciprocating saws that link to your iPhone. 

Local 290 plumbers have gone one step further. They are among the first in the nation to use the Hololenses on real projects. Eight lenses have gone out on Portland-area jobs.

In the past, workers made small adjustments for inconsistencies on their two-dimensional plans only find out months later they had screwed up the whole system. Now, they can sync the glasses’ view with the Computer Aided Design projection overseen by a remote operator. With a few clicks, a modified pipe or fitting gets beamed to the glasses, appearing right in front of the plumber’s eyes.  

“At the end of the day, water and waste needs to go somewhere. That’s something that’ll never go out of style,” says Ryan Weber, VP of operations at Troutdale-based Wolcott Plumbing. “But the processes and the speed at which the work get done and that our guys in the field get info — that’s radically changed.”

Not that pipe wrenches are going out of style any time soon.  “It’s not all just sparks and flames and mud and steel,”  May says. “We do that too, though, and that’s the part I like.”  

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Monda, May and HVAC Program Coordinator Justin Tiller talk new technology in the trades.

To draw young people into the profession, boosters should focus on the dual nature of the modern plumber’s skill set, says Steve Kokes, president of Portland ad agency Coates Kokes.

Asked how he would promote the industry to tech-savvy millenials, Kokes began by framing the problem:  

“Kids hear about jobs in healthcare and other fields whose rate of change appears to be quicker and thus sets them in a 21st-century mindset,” he wrote in an email.

“Then there’s the issue of stigma and stereotyping. From butt-crack visuals to plumber jokes, the industry has taken some knocks over the years dampening awareness of and appreciation for the realities of the job.”  

Kokes’ hypothetical ad campaign unfolds as a series of vignettes contrasting perceptions of plumbers with the realities. 

“Perceptions of plumbing often involve very old-school classic tools,” Kokes says. “In reality, plumbers working on the renovation of Grant High School here in Portland are using virtual reality to help avoid ‘clash coordination’ or points in the infrastructure pathways where the various utilities might run into each other or some other structural element of the building.”

“There’s a hands-on, tangible appeal to plumbing that we’d bring forward in the brand messaging. In this age of desk jocks and superficial social media, there’s something solid about plumbing and the people who do it.” 

Kokes put together a two-page pitch for a rebranding plumbers campaign. Read it here. 

You might call Josh Schoonmaker a desk jock. Over the past few years, the peripatetic software developer packed his tech resume with names like Hewlett Packard, Ebay, Paypal and Daimler’s mobility services arm, moovel.

Now Schoonmaker sells toilets and fire hydrants. 

He wouldn’t have it any other way. As the recently appointed e-commerce manager at Consolidated Supply Co., a Portland-based plumbing supply company, Schoonmaker found his niche: the chance to revitalize an industry that struggled for years to embrace tech solutions: plumbing supply.  

“There’s nothing less sexy than selling the pipe that connects to the toilet,” Schoonmaker says. “But as I started looking into it my business mind just went wild. It’s been overlooked by the startup and tech community.”  

When Schoomaker started at Consolidated, he braced for culture shock. Before he toured the company’s locations to explain the new e-commerce proposal, he prepped like a public relations manager would prep for a press conference.

He expected silence and blank stares at best, outright objections at worst.  

But after just two or three minutes, most mangers couldn’t wait to get started.  

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In the past five years, the technology used in plumbing has advanced exponentially.

The pace of change in plumbing and related trades has ramped up exponentially. Industry practices feature e-commerce, automated paperwork, sophisticated Building Information Modeling systems and augmented and virtual reality.  

But the industry’s branding vocabulary has yet to catch up with the times. 

“In startups, optics is huge,” Schoonmaker says. “Things that get more news articles written about them get more funding and thus attract startups.”  

Basic infrastructure — toilets and fire hydrants — does not fall into that category.

Related Story: Can techno-optimism really save the world? 

Justin Tiller, the training center’s HVAC program coordinator, says the industry already has a surefire way of attracting new workers: wages.

He’s got a point. Wages start at $17.53 an hour for a first-year apprentice, and progress to $43.82 for a journeyman plumber. An experienced plumbing or HVAC contractor, Tiller said, can make as much as $80,000 to $100,000 a year. That’s about the same as  median pay for a software developer ($102,280 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).  

Plus, union workers, who pay a small percentage of their wages into funding the apprenticeship program, get excellent benefits packages, often a step up from those of non-union plumbers. 

plumbing 9HoloLens technology allows plumbers to project building plans onto a job site in three dimensions.

The union is also among the first to experiment with virtual reality training. Apprentices can don a pair of goggles and enter a scenario where they’re tasked with fixing an office building’s air conditioning. They visit the virtual business, talk with the owner and fix the unit.  

The project is in an early testing stage, Gormley says. “Right now, we’re training the trainers.” 

Related Story: Committee on Students Success to Tackle Skills Gap and Funding for Public Schools

A major hurdle to the widespread adoption of these innovations is the high price tag. A single pair of the HoloLens glasses run around $5,000. The small indepedent contractors that would most benefit from the technology in labor and cost savings, May says, can’t afford it up front.

A dearth of career technical education programs is another obstacle to pushing the industry forward. During a hearing at the Oregon state legislature last month, plumbing and other trade industry representatives pleaded for more support.

Amid shrinking education budgets, change may come at the grassroots level. As college students struggle with crippling debt and uncertain job prospects, the union is seeing an increase in the number of apprentices entering the program with existing college degrees, running the gamut from sports marketing to statistics.

Other would-be plumbers come from community colleges and trade schools, after completing year-long certificate programs that prepare students to enter four- to five-year apprenticeships. 

Those without a degree can participate in a new program allowing apprentices to earn an associate’s degree while learning plumbing.  

“We aren’t discouraging college at all,” May says. “We’re also not just the alternative to college.”   

plumbing 10Plumber training today blends higher education and traditional trade skills, May says.

More than 700 students applied for the 106 apprentice spots this year at the training center.

That new generation of highly educated plumbers should see plenty of work coming down the pipeline. As construction booms, along with population, so has the job market for plumbers.

In a report published a few years ago, the Oregon Employment Department estimated plumber employment in the state would increase 13.1% from 2014 to 2024

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Back in the 1890s, Loos praised plumbers’ efforts to bring Germany’s aging bathroom fixtures up to lavish English and American washroom standards. Plumbers, he wrote, “bring us closer to that most important goal, the attainment of a cultural level equal to the rest of the civilized Western world.” 

Kokes put a modern twist on that battle cry by capitalizing on millennials’ concerns for environmental and social justice. “Water and sanitation,” he said in his pitch, “are among the fundamental features that separate the developed world from what we used to call ‘third world’ challenges.” 

To be sure, all that philosophizing is a bit lofty for the plumbers themselves.  

At the training center, as this millennial reporter shouldered his backpack and prepared to leave, they offered a simpler pitch. 

“Before you head out,” May said. “Do you still have college debt?”  

The answer was yes. 

Without another word, he handed over a training center brochure.

SIDEBAR: As automation progresses, could plumbing jobs go to pipefitting robots?

The plumbers at the Tualatin training center laugh at the thought.  “They can’t take our work,” said Gustaveson.

“Without an operator, this thing is just a $5,000 paperweight,” May added, gesturing at the HoloLens. “It takes a skilled person to create that model.”  

Plumbing remains largely immune from the outsourcing and automation concerns that plague American manufacturing. 

Every building has a unique layout. Plumbers must constantly adapt to what they see on the ground.  

“Until a pill is invented that turns water into vapor or something like that, we’ll still need plumbers,” Gormley says.

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