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LRTC plumbing program hopes to meet need

LEWISTON — Gabriel Nichols read a diagram, figured the length of pipes and cut them for soldering.

Nichols and 20 others are enrolled in a new plumbing program that opened last month at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center.

“I’m looking at doing plumbing and carpentry, having my own business,” said Nichols, a Lewiston High School senior. After graduating in June, he plans to attend Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle. “They have plumbing and carpentry.”

Zachary Rioux, a senior at Leavitt Area High School in Turner, said he enrolled in plumbing because he plans to work in plumbing and heating when he joins the U.S. Air Force. With little more than a month in the program, the classes have “already taught me more than I would have known,” he said.

LRTC Director Rob Callahan said the program is going well. The goal is to turn out plumbers needed in the workforce and to create workers who will earn good salaries, he said.

A licensed journeyman plumber — one with some experience but not yet a master plumber — can expect to make a starting salary in the $40,000 range, LRTC plumbing instructor Paul Kennedy said. Once someone has reached the master status, income can go into six figures, depending on the market and the kind of business, he said.

Plans have long called for LRTC to offer plumbing, but the budget didn’t allow that until last year. That’s when a settlement through Maine Attorney General Janet Mills’ office gave Lewiston and two other regional technical centers money for a course.

Just weeks into the new program, Callahan said he’s getting calls from local businesses asking when the first class will graduate.

“There’s a profound need for plumbers in this community,” Callahan said. “You talk to any plumbing and heating businesses, they’ll tell you they cannot find enough experienced help. It makes all of the work being asked of them very difficult.”

This year, 21 students have enrolled. Callahan expects the number to grow next year, when two years of plumbing will be offered.

Students are interested because “they know there’s work. It’s good-paying, stable work,” he said.

There are two reasons plumbers are needed, Callahan said: Technology is creating more of a demand and the workforce is aging.

“Licensed guys are retiring,” Kennedy said.

Callahan pointed to the town of Jackman, when after the town’s only plumber retired, a $2,000 college scholarship was offered in 2014 to encourage someone to work as a plumber in that town.

As to evolving technology creating a greater need for plumbers, Callahan pointed to a “mini-split” on the wall of his office. The mini-split provides heating and cooling. “It’s moving air and water. That needs to be plumbed.”

In class last week, students studied outlines with dimensions. They had to do the math to determine how long pipes had to be for the mock job.

While trade careers involve working with hands, 25 percent of the classwork involves going over lesson plans and reading, math, science and analysis skills, Kennedy said.

In the coming months, Kennedy said, his students will build six to eight bathrooms, including constructing platforms, sketching bathroom dimensions, learning basic waste-piping and determining vent pipe locations. They all will learn carpentry skills.

Next year, he plans to introduce heating. The more certifications students can achieve, the more valuable they’ll be in the workforce, he said.

After students complete the program, Callahan expects half will go to technical college and the rest to apprentice jobs with master plumbers.

In some cases, Callahan said, “the salaries they’re going to be offered with no college will be hard to say no to.”

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