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Philly schools can't hire enough plumbers. So they're growing their own

A wave of Philadelphia school district steamfitters, heating and air conditioning technicians, and electricians are retiring with not enough workers to replace them. A new initiative aims to fix that.

Plumbing apprentice Antonio Lopez, 20, learns the ropes from mentor Chris Hamler, 47, reconnecting tail pieces for toilets at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School.
Plumbing apprentice Antonio Lopez, 20, learns the ropes from mentor Chris Hamler, 47, reconnecting tail pieces for toilets at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Robert Hunter has a problem: In a strong economy, he can't find enough steamfitters, plumbers, and other tradespeople to keep up with the demands of maintaining the Philadelphia School District's 200-plus buildings.

So he's growing his own.

The Philadelphia School District, which has 206 skilled blue-collar workers and 52 more open jobs for them, in the fall launched a state-sanctioned program that hires graduates of its vocational high school programs as apprentice plumbers and electricians.

The apprentices earn a paycheck while they learn – and after four years, emerge debt-free with solid jobs paying about $50,000 annually to start, plus pension and benefits.

"It's a way to build the pipeline," said Hunter, executive director of the school system's maintenance department. "It's a career for our graduates, and it's filling a need for us, putting us on a path to sustainability with our trades mechanics."

For years, schools across the country pushed college as the holy grail for all students, de-emphasizing skilled trades. But it's catching up with us: In many places, such fields are now experiencing worker shortages. And for an employer like the School District – which offers workers stability but not the same earning potential as others in their field – the problem is even more acute.

"In some ways, the college-for-all movement tarnished the reputation of skilled trades," said Jeff Strohl, director of research for Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce. "In general, there's clearly been a slowdown in the number of people wanting to go into the skilled trades."

In Philadelphia, the district's needs are great. Hunter can't hire workers fast enough to replace those who are retiring, and its 200-plus buildings are in constant need of repair. (The district has about $5 billion in deferred maintenance costs.)

The apprenticeship program began with a 2016 brainstorming session. The district's department of career and technical education – formerly known as vocational education – partnered with its maintenance division to come up with the idea of a reboot of an apprenticeship track that ran 25 years ago but faded away. The union representing school system blue-collar workers agreed to the partnership; its workers train the apprentices on the job.

The state signed off on the program last year, and officials began recruiting the first class over the summer. There are six apprentices in the first cohort – two aspiring plumbers, four electricians – and Hunter hopes to recruit at least that number every year. Any graduate of a career and technical high school or program, city or otherwise, is eligible to apply.

It came at just the right time for Antwan Harris, who earned his diploma at Edison High School in June. When the program began in October, he joined as a plumbing apprentice.

"Working for the School District will set me up in life," said Harris, 19. "I'll be able to buy my own car, buy my own house, support a family eventually."

Most young people his age aren't thinking about pensions, but Harris is, he said. So is Kadeem Jackson, who graduated from the now-closed Bok High School in 2007 before moving on to jobs taking photographs, clerking at Whole Foods, and pulling mandatory 12-hour shifts at a milk factory.

When Jackson heard about the apprenticeship program, he jumped at the chance to learn how to be an electrician – while earning money. (Apprentices start at about $20,000 annually, with pay raises every six months.) The School District provides the tools he needs, and he's even eligible for overtime pay.

"My career trajectory wasn't where I wanted it to be," said Jackson, 28. "I was making money in the short-term, but in the long-term, there wasn't much for me. This is a skill, a respectable job."

Apprentices work four full days with their sponsoring tradesman in whatever schools need them and split a fifth between a regular workday and four hours of classroom instruction at Edison.

On a recent day, the four electrician apprentices sat around a table in a workshop, talking about wire gauge and going over voltage and wattage.

Derek Beaudry had an answer to every question the instructor asked. The classroom seemed to energize him.

"In high school, I was never good with math, but now I'm spot-on," said Beaudry, 21. He graduated from South Philadelphia High, where he was enrolled in a vocational program, in 2015, but had no luck in finding a trades job. He worked at Burger King and Home Depot before he heard about the apprenticeship.

"This is the first job where I actually wanted to come to work," said Beaudry. "You can take this anywhere. I'm learning something new every day."

Beaudry and Jackson both said they see themselves like their mentors in the district – working this job until they retire. It's new every day, they said. They see parts of the city they've never been to, and they're making a difference.

"I'm solving things, I'm fixing things," said Jackson.

Steve Schagrin, who teaches plumbing at Edison and works as an instructor to the apprentices, sees the need.

"I'm 53, and I don't see a lot of plumbers coming up behind me," said Schagrin. "Kids don't want to be plumbers."

The district, in fact, had to recently shut the plumbing program at Swenson Arts and Technical High School for lack of interest.

But the apprenticeship program is one possible fix, officials think – if word spreads about the opportunities open to graduates, perhaps a revival might be in order. Early feedback is good, and the district hopes to get state approval to add apprentice programs in steamfitting and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning this year.

"We want to build on and energize our CTE programs," Hunter said. "Not everyone who graduates high school is going to go to college."