OTC to debut plumbing program in 2024


Matt Hudson: The plumbing program will initially occupy 2,500 square feet on the OTC campus.

Matt Hudson: The plumbing program will initially occupy 2,500 square feet on the OTC campus.

The Ozarks Technical Community College is in the planning stages for a new sanitation program in 2024, which recently received a seven-figure financial boost.

Officials say the program is intended as a workforce training opportunity for those who want to enter the industry or seek further training. Plans to develop the program got underway after meeting with local business owners in the industry last spring, said Matt Hudson, OTC’s Executive Dean of Career, Technical and Community Development. However, when an opportunity arose for a competitive Missouri Department of Economic Development scholarship in October, he said the college responded quickly.

While OTC has not received its full request of nearly $1.5 million, Hudson said the state agency approved a $1.3 million grant last month that will be used for construction, equipment and grants.

“It’s primarily intended to solve our initial space problem,” he said, noting that the program will occupy approximately 2,500 square feet at the Industry Transportation and Technology Center on the Springfield OTC campus. “This is not a huge facility, but it certainly meets initial needs. These dollars, made available to OTC as part of this grant, will convert an existing lab space, no longer used for its original purpose, into a classroom and lab for plumbers.”

Hudson said OTC’s share of the program costs is undetermined. While additional shop materials and equipment are needed, he said the school is already receiving requests for donations.

“Hopefully our out-of-pocket costs will be as minimal as possible with the resources that we can get from either the grant or donations,” he said, noting that the government funding is “a huge shot in the arm.” .

measure interest
The program will focus on residential building installation and maintenance, with the intent for students to be trained while on the job, Hudson said. The curriculum is still being developed, but the program was initiated last year through discussions with about 20 local plumbing companies, including Masters Plumbing LLC, Plumb-Rite Plumbing LLC and Gold Mechanical Inc., he said.

Hudson said OTC wants to verify with companies that the program is still an area of ​​need and that they are willing to support it. While the types of support are still being evaluated, Hudson said there are opportunities for companies to send employees to enroll in courses, pay a portion of tuition and provide equipment.

“It was sort of a general plea for support from business and industry, which we do with every program we launch,” he said, noting that the college was pleased with the interest from business.

Mike Polino, owner of Lorenz Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., was one of the participants in the discussions.

“They were input meetings where people just talked out loud,” he said. “OTC and everyone involved did a great job allowing us to act more as a sounding board.”

The plumbing program could be of great benefit to the region while the industry, like many others, is struggling with labor shortages, said JW DeLong, co-owner of DeLong Plumbing, Heating and Air. DeLong also attended the OTC meetings.

“We are a very struggling area for skilled workers. It’s necessary because we need to teach kids and parents that it’s okay to go into a blue-collar job,” he said. “We can do that while still giving them college credits.”

OTC already has programs for trades, like HVAC and electrical, DeLong said, adding plumbing was just the next step.

“To be honest, we’ve been kicking this idea around for a while. This is probably one of those programs that the plumbing industry has long wanted to offer OTC but never quite seemed to fit for some reason,” Hudson said, citing timing and resources as previous obstacles.

OTC officials say plumbers qualify for the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, which pays tuition and fees for nontraditional students entering high-demand career fields. According to a press release, the school had 111 students receiving fast-track funding last fall, more than doubling the number the previous spring semester.

missing piece
The plumbing program is a missing part of the local industry, Polino said.

“It’s a great opportunity for employers and students to network, which is really valuable for both,” he said. “It also teaches students great fundamental skills and helps them succeed.”

DeLong and Polino said the program could also help remove the negative stigma associated with plumbing and other skilled trades.

“The plumbing industry isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when someone says ‘a great career path,'” Polino said. “There are some clichés and things like that. But in reality it is a fantastic opportunity with great rewards and benefits. We have an enormous need for qualified plumbers.”

According to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, the average annual salary for a plumber in the Ozarks region, which includes Greene, Christian, Dallas, Polk, Stone, Taney, and Webster counties, is nearly $62,000. The agency also notes that the Ozarks region has approximately 80 plumbing job openings each year.

Some of those job openings are driven by retirements, DeLong said, noting that he has three long-time employees who plan to leave the workforce by the end of the year. If they retire, it means a combined loss of over 130 years of experience, he said.

“We lack experienced people,” he said of his family business with 50 employees, which was founded in 1991.

It’s an industry-wide problem, he added.

“On the other hand, we have been fighting the shortage of skilled workers for 20 years. But over the last three or four years, we’ve seen more and more people who at least think becoming a plumber or an HVAC technician isn’t the end of the world,” he said, adding that he’s about four staff short at full to be occupied.

The job requires commitment, as applicants must be 21 years old and have at least five years of experience as an apprentice to a master plumber before becoming a journeyman plumber, according to state statutes. Applicants for a master plumber license must be at least 25 years old and have three years or more experience as a licensed journeyman plumber.

Construction at OTC has not yet begun as the offerings are subject to approval by the OTC Board of Trustees, Hudson said. However, officials hope to start the project in the spring and open for classes as early as January 2024. It will fill the space formerly occupied by the agriculture program, which was moved and expanded to the college’s Richwood Valley campus in Nixa, he said.

If the sanitation program offers grants, DeLong said his company would be interested in being a sponsor. He said co-sponsorship with the Springfield Contractors Association is a possibility, noting that the organization, for which he serves as president this year, has awarded approximately $14,000 in trade-based grants in 2022.

“I hope it provides another educated and qualified workforce that can continue our industry for the next 30 to 40 years,” said DeLong.