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Ozarks Technical Community College is in the planning stages for a new plumbing program in 2024 that recently received a seven-figure financial boost.
Officials say the program is intended as a workforce training opportunity for those looking to enter or skill up in the industry. Plans already were in motion last spring to develop the program after meeting with local business owners in the industry, said Matt Hudson, executive dean of career, technical and community development at OTC. However, when the opportunity for a competitive grant from the Missouri Department of Economic Development emerged in October, he said the college moved quickly.
While OTC didn’t receive its full request of nearly $1.5 million, Hudson said the state agency approved a $1.3 million grant last month that will go toward construction, equipment and scholarships.
“It’s primarily intended to solve our initial space issue,” he said, noting the program will fill roughly 2,500 square feet in the Industry Transportation and Technology Center on OTC’s Springfield campus. “This is not a huge facility but certainly meets the initial need. These dollars that were provided to OTC as part of this grant will take an existing lab space no longer in use for its initial purpose and modify it to provide a plumbing classroom and lab.”
Hudson said OTC’s share of the program cost is still undetermined. While additional shop materials and equipment will be required, he said the school already is receiving donation inquiries.
“So, hopefully our cost out of pocket will be as small as possible by the resources we can either get through the grant or by donations,” he said, noting the state funds are “a huge shot in the arm.”
The program will focus on residential installation and maintenance with the intent of students receiving training while working, Hudson said. The curriculum is still being developed but the program was initiated through discussions last year with around 20 local plumbing companies, such as Masters Plumbing LLC, Plumb-Rite Plumbing LLC and Gold Mechanical Inc., he said.
Hudson said OTC wanted to verify with companies the program was still an area of need and was something they were willing to support. While the types of support are still under consideration, Hudson said possibilities include companies sending employees to enroll in classes, paying a portion of tuition and providing equipment.
“It was kind of a broad ask of business and industry support, which is what we do with any program we start,” he said, noting the college was pleased with the companies’ interest.
Mike Polino, owner of Lorenz Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., was among those who attended the discussions.
“It was input meetings, just talking out loud,” he said. “OTC and everybody involved did a great job allowing us to be more of a sounding board.”
The plumbing program could be a significant benefit to the area while the industry, like many others, deals with worker shortages, said J.W. DeLong, co-owner of DeLong Plumbing, Heating and Air. DeLong also participated in the OTC meetings.
“We’re a very stricken area for skilled tradespeople. It’s needed because we need to teach kids and parents that it’s OK to go into a blue-collar line of work,” he said. “We can do that while still giving them college credits.”
OTC already has programs for trades, such as HVAC and electrical, DeLong said, adding plumbing was just the next step.
“We honestly have kicked this idea around for some time. This is probably one of those programs that the plumbing community have long wanted OTC to offer, but for whatever reason never seemed to quite fit in,” Hudson said, citing timing and resources as past roadblocks.
OTC officials say plumbing qualifies for the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, which pays tuition and fees for nontraditional students going into high-demand career fields. The school had 111 students receiving Fast Track funds last fall, more than twice the total of the previous spring semester, according to a news release.
The plumbing program is a missing piece to the local industry, Polino said.
“It’s a great opportunity for employers and students to connect, which is really valuable for both of them,” he said. “It also provides students with great foundational skills and helps them succeed.”
DeLong and Polino said the program also could help erode the negative stigma attached to plumbing and other skilled trade jobs.
“The plumbing industry isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when somebody says ‘a great career path,’” Polino said. “There’s some stereotypes and things like that. But in reality, it is a fantastic opportunity with great compensation and benefits. We have a huge need for skilled plumbers.”
The average annual salary for a plumber in the Ozarks region, which comprises Greene, Christian, Dallas, Polk, Stone, Taney and Webster counties, is nearly $62,000, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center. The agency also notes the Ozarks region has roughly 80 plumbing job openings annually.
Some of those job vacancies are caused by retirements, DeLong said, noting he has three longtime employees who plan to leave the workforce by year’s end. When they retire, it will mean a combined loss of over 130 years of experience, he said.
“We’re short on seasoned people,” he said of his 50-employee family-owned company that started in 1991.
It’s an industrywide problem, he added.
“We’ve been fighting this the last 20 years, a shortage of skilled laborers. But in the last three or four years, more and more we’ve seen an increase in people who are at least thinking it’s not the end of the world to become a plumber or HVAC technician,” he said, adding he’s around four employees short of being fully staffed.
The profession requires commitment as applicants must be 21 and have at least five years of experience as an apprentice under a master plumber before becoming a journeyman plumber, according to state statutes. Applicants for a master plumber’s license must be at least 25 years old and have three years or more experience as a licensed journeyman plumber.
Construction work hasn’t commenced at OTC, as bids are yet to be approved by the OTC Board of Trustees, Hudson said. However, officials hope to begin the project by the spring and open for classes as early as January 2024. It will fill space formerly occupied by the agriculture program that was moved and expanded to the college’s Richwood Valley campus in Nixa, he said.
If the plumbing program offers scholarships, DeLong said his company would be interested in being a sponsor. He said a co-sponsorship with the Springfield Contractors Association is a possibility, noting the organization for which he serves this year as president presented around $14,000 in trade-based scholarships in 2022.
“My hopes are that it provides another trained and qualified workforce that can continue with our industry for the next 30-40 years,” DeLong said.
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