Help wanted: Lawmakers, Scott administration try to tackle shortage of plumbers, electricians
The Legislature and Gov. Phil Scott's administration are looking for ways to alleviate a shortage of licensed plumbers and electricians that’s hampering flood recovery, slowing housing development and stunting progress on green energy development.
A longstanding shortage of trades workers in Vermont has come into sharper focus as flood survivors struggle to find qualified people to fix inundated heating and electric systems.
“We know that people need electricians and plumbers, especially since winter is staring us down,” said Jay Ramsey, director of workforce development at the Vermont Department of Labor. “And we as a state do not have the population to support filling these (jobs).”
The shortage of electricians and plumbers, according to Ramsey, is a symptom of the state’s aging demographics.
“Even before the pandemic, we as a state did not have enough people to … fill the vacancies that were going to be created by people retiring out of those occupations,” Ramsey said. “And we don’t have enough young people moving through the education system to fill those jobs.”
Craftsbury Rep. Katherine Sims said Vermont is feeling the effects of that labor shortage.
“I mean we’re in the middle of a housing crisis, a climate crisis, and we need a lot more licensed electricians and plumbers and other to help make sure that we’re building the kind of housing that we want and need for a resilient, sustainable future,” she said.
Sims said she’s working with other legislators on policy reforms that might encourage more Vermonters to enter electrician and plumber apprenticeship programs. One area they’re focused on, Sims said, is requirements for licensure. At the state’s leading trades institution, Vermont Technical College, students need to take 576 hours of classroom instruction and perform 8,000 of on-the-job apprenticeship hours in order to be eligible for licensure.
“When it’s a job-seeker market, that long time horizon, I think, is a real barrier,” Sims said. “I hear from folks that that’s a real deterrent, that that’s too long to be training on the job when other pathways can get you to (a different) licensed position sooner.”
While she hasn’t drafted a formal legislative proposal yet, Sims said she and other lawmakers will be looking for ways to “accelerate the timeline” to become a licensed plumber or electrician.
“There are many different sectors that are facing a workforce shortage and doing everything that they can to attract folks to that field,” she said. “And right now if you can pick and choose something where you can be independent and licensed and operating in two years versus four years, shorter pathways can be more attractive.”
Ramsey said the Department of Labor doesn’t have a formal position on the proposal, though he said it might run into some opposition from existing licensees.
“Most all of the electricians in the state went through the program, and I think they believe firmly in the amount of time that it takes,” Ramsey said.
Sarah Ballou, program coordinator for the Registered Electrical & Plumbing Apprenticeship programs at VTC, said the rigorousness of the existing requirements reflect the complexity of plumbing and electrical codes, and the difficulty of administering them correctly.
“It’s kind of like being a lawyer and interpreting law. And it takes four years, that 8,000 hours, to get there, because those code books are very complicated, there’s many different scenarios,” she said. “So we’re spending those four years fine-tuning them, allowing them to know where things are in that book.”
Ballou and Mike Smith, interim president of Vermont State University, said they're open to any proposals to increase the trades workforce from either the Legislature or the Department of Labor.
Vermont Technical College has about 650 students combined enrolled in the plumbing and electrician programs this fall. Historical data suggests that while 95% will complete all four years of instruction, only about a third will go on to become licensed.
Both Ballou and Ramsey said it’s not entirely clear why so many graduates don’t get the licensure, which is required to perform work on properties such as rental housing or public buildings. The Department of Labor and the McClure Foundation conducted a workforce analysis that found Vermont will need an additional 1,500 licensed electricians and 1,200 licensed plumbers over the next 10 years.
Lawmakers approved a bill during the last legislative session that directed the Department of Labor to craft recommendations that will help the state meet those targets. Ramsey said his office will meet with constituencies such as the Agency of Education, Vermont Works for Women, HireAbility Vermont and private-sector employers over the next two months to determine how best to proceed.
He said possible strategies could include more intense recruitment efforts in high school and increased emphasis on adult education.
“And, through adult education, helping to lift up those people who haven’t yet complete their high school diploma or GED and get them on a path to good jobs,” he said.
Ballou said wages for people who do get licensed will be a key selling point as Vermont looks to build its ranks of plumbers and electricians.
People with journeyman licenses can expect to earn $30 an hour and up, she said. And the going rate for master electricians is $50 an hour.