At Brewer Companies, Arizona’s largest new construction residential plumbing company, the average salary for second-year plumbers surpasses $50,000 per year. Yet, the company is consistently looking for new team members to meet the demands of their current and growing customer base.

Mike Brewer, founder of Brewer Companies, has taken it upon himself to deliver new energy into the discussion focused beyond the traditional “workforce development” dialogue and towards something more specific, developing a labor force within the construction trades.

Nationally, 86 percent of construction firms report challenges in filling hourly craft positions that represent a bulk of the construction workforce, according to the Association of General Contractors.

For Brewer, it’s a journey that began out of necessity. “The Brewer difference is all about high-quality, on-time delivery and reducing call-backs, which requires great people,” Brewer says. “Developing our next generation of construction trades workforce is integral to making that happen for my company and the industry.”

Brewer’s efforts began with the development of a series of lunch tours featuring the Valley’s construction trade programs at prominent Joint Technical Education District schools (JTEDs) with the Arizona Subcontractor’s Association, policymakers and leaders from the homebuilding industry to learn about what training resources are currently available, and explore ways to strengthen the student pipeline in an effort to create a more robust and accessible labor force.

“We are hearing from the business community that they would like to pursue more projects, but they don’t have the labor pool to complete all the work they would like,” says Phoenix Vice Mayor Kate Gallego.

Workforce Development

Ask a room full of people to close their eyes and picture “artwork” or “food” and you will get as many talents and flavors as you have people. When people think about workforce development, it’s the same thing.

With specific focus on construction workforce development, Brewer says, “My goal is to bring together my industry peers, customers and even competitors to learn about what resources are currently available to train people in the construction trades area and to drive a collective dialogue and propose solutions as to what we can do, as an industry, to generate more excitement around entering our career field.”


What’s Currently Available

With 14 JTEDs across the state, Arizona has the needed facilities and tools to train the next generation of workers in a diverse range of construction trades, but the facilities are being underutilized.

JTEDs like the East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa offer construction technologies programs designed to develop hands-on skills in multiple disciplines including electrical wiring, plumbing, masonry, framing, roofing, drywall finish work and welding.

Dr. Sally Downey, superintendent at EVIT with 25 years of experience in the Career and Technical Education field, says, “students learn, work and think with their hands.”

Upon completing the industry-driven curriculum that lasts 2-4 semesters, students receive the needed certification to start working such as OSHA 10, which is required by all contractors for employment and NCCER, which is available in each trade.

From there students can enter a career in masonry, construction management and architecture or as a plumber, carpenter or electrician. All of which have average entry level salaries between $15-18 per hour.

Dr. Downey describes her work as “turning passions into paychecks.” She says by helping students find something they are passionate about, like a trade, they constantly want to improve and that drives themselves toward success.


Aspiring to the Construction Trades

Brewer thinks historical references to the importance of earning a college degree has caused many to overlook the construction trades as a career choice that provides the opportunity to support a nice lifestyle and family.

Ironically, at the same time that homebuilders are struggling to build a strong, consistent and robust workforce of skilled labor, large numbers of college graduates struggle to find work in their field of study and leave college with student loans amounting to thousands of dollars of debt.

The labor market is far from ideal for young graduates, according to the Economic Policy Institute, which reports 9.7 percent of young college graduates are neither currently enrolled or employed compared to 8.4 percent in 2007.

“College isn’t necessarily the answer for everyone but until our industry starts leading with the dollars, sense, and stability of a career in the construction trades, we are going to continue to come up short”, says Brewer.  

He speaks from experience, having started work as a young plumber right after high school, before climbing his way up the company ladder and eventually purchasing the business.

“Going into debt to get a degree for many doesn’t make sense,” he explains, “but only if you understand that there is a great, viable and appealing alternative where you can also make good money.”

Brewer says the construction trades enable students to get paid to learn a trade at a starting salary of $30,000-50,000 per year with no student loan debt.

During his meetings, coffees and meals with homebuilder CEO’s, policymakers and colleagues, Brewer likes to sing a line from an old Willie Nelson song with a personal twist.

“Mommas don’t let your babies grow up to be plumbers,” he sings off-key, but with a starting salary of $40,000 and no student loan debt, many mommas might be changing their tune.