Truckers, plumbers, pipefitters seek young applicants for high-paying jobs

Plumbers, truckers and pipefitters are offering hiring and signing bonuses — and promoting their six-figure incomes — to entice high school graduates willing to do dirty jobs, but young people keep turning up their noses to blue-collar work.

Even the prospect of a $1,000-a-week starting salary that could double in six years isn’t persuading young people to get into plumbing, says Chris Robertson, who has worked as a plumber for 24 years in Rockville, Maryland.

“It requires you to work hard, and I think a good part of the younger generation wants to be rich without putting in the effort,” said Mr. Robertson, owner of Robertson Plumbing Services. “And I think that’s part of the problem. Why do I want to dig with a shovel when I can sit at home, post videos and become YouTube famous?”

He said he’s been looking for an assistant since his employee of four years quit in February to work for a bigger company that offered a signing bonus. And the job vacancy is forcing him to turn down jobs, he added.

“Every single plumber I know is busy and can use extra help,” he said.

Truckers also are hurting for help amid retirements, rising gasoline prices, a lack of mechanics and a semiconductor shortage that has added tens of thousands of dollars to the price tag of a new big rig. The trucking industry added 27,300 payroll jobs in April and May combined, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data.

“It’s a nightmare, with all the truck drivers retiring,” said Ivan Isakovic, a trucker based in Florida who hauls tractors for John Deere.

The Serbia-born Mr. Isakovic says inflation is scaring off recruits, noting that truckers can take home $5,000 to $6,000 a month if all goes well. He’s now paying $1,200 to fill up the 200-gallon fuel tank of his aging big rig, and he worries about what repairs will cost if it breaks down.

“Right now, we’re barely covering the cost of fuel and maintenance. Some of my friends are clearing only $1,100 a week,” Mr. Isakovic said.

Unable to attract young people to blue-collar labor, some tradesmen are looking to former felons to fill job vacancies. Indeed Hiring Lab recently found that fair chance job listings open to ex-felons spiked by 31% from May 2019 to last month.

What’s more, a study from the nonprofit Rand Corp. in February found that more than half of unemployed men in their 30s have a criminal arrest record that otherwise would bar them from millions of openings in the labor shortage.

Meanwhile, trade groups are emphasizing the benefits of vocational education — on-the-job training, work security, high salaries, pension plans — to attract young people to apprenticeships.

“Graduates leave with ‘industry-recognized credentials’ and licenses within their field of study,” noted David Ferreira, a longtime vocational-technical high school science teacher and principal.

In the Washington, D.C., area, the Steamfitters Local 602 is running ads on radio and social media that offer apprenticeships to anyone who will take them for six-figure jobs with good benefits and retirement plans.

The union’s business manager, Chris Madello, said the campaign generates “word-of-mouth” for pipefitting, pipe-welding and pipe-building work.

“There isn’t a shortage of people trying to get into the profession, but there may be a shortage of people qualified to be top-level journeymen, and this campaign could help us attract better candidates,” Mr. Madello said.

So far, more than 600 people have applied since January. Those who graduate from the five-year apprenticeship will earn more than $100,000 a year and another $50,000 annually in benefits, the union said.

“There seems to be a renewed interest in apprenticeship because of the student loan crisis. You earn while you learn, you get an education and you don’t have any college debt,” said Lou Spencer, assistant business manager at the UA Local No. 5 Plumbers and Gasfitters that covers the Washington metro area. “What else could you want?”

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