PARIS — There’s a classroom in the Oxford Hills Technical School with a concrete floor, stubbed plumbing and even flues in the ceiling.
Beginning next fall, almost 20 years after the fixtures were put in place, the room will be filled with students prepared to learn the plumbing trade.
The program is finally getting its start thanks in large part to Bath Fitter – the 30-year-old bath tub refitting company.
Oxford Hills Technical School Director Shawn Lambert said the challenge in starting any new technical program is to find the funding. The state’s funding formula requires the technical school to fund the first two years of a new program. The state will then kick in its share beginning in the third year, he said.
Last year, Oxford Hills Technical School got a break thanks to the Portland-based bathroom remodeling company.
“Last spring CTE directors got an email asking about plumbing program needs. We learned that the Maine Attorney General’s Office had sued Bath Fitter,” said Lambert.
“Apparently the company engaged in plumbing work not to code by unlicensed plumbers. Bath Fitter had to pay a penalty and the AG’s Office wanted to reinvest that money into the three CTE plumbing programs.”
The Attorney General’s Office said in a March 2015 statement that Bath Fitter engaged in unlicensed plumbing activities, used nonconforming construction contracts, installed plumbing before a plumbing permit issued, misrepresented employees’ license status, and engaged in plumbing installations that may violate the Maine State Internal Plumbing Code.
A settlement was reached by consent judgment, which prohibited certain activities and required a penalty of up to $750,000 with a portion of that sum suspended for the duration of the probationary period.
Lambert said Oxford Hills Technical School proposed using $60,000 a year for two years to start a plumbing program, with the state providing funding on the third year.
“The AG’s Office agreed this summer,” Lambert said of the money that will be used as a direct result of restitution funds from a settlement reached with the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
In January, Oxford Hills Technical School Building Trades Instructor Dan Daniels and Lambert met with a group of local professionals to plan the course work. The group included Master Plumber Harley Johnson, Master Plumber Richard Moody, Master Plumber Ed Smith, Plumbers Helper Lynn Mason, Otisfield Code Enforcement Officer Richard St. John and Plumbing Wholesaler Brian Compton, contractor.
Just a few weeks ago, the district advertised for its first-ever plumbing instructor. He or she will start instruction in the fall 2016.
The idea to have a plumbing program in the technical school goes back some 20 years to shortly after the technical school was constructed within the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.
“When the school was renovated and expanded 20 years ago a room was put in for a plumbing program, B211,” said Lambert. “It has direct access to the Building Construction Technology program, a concrete floor with drains, stubbed plumbing, and even some flues in the ceiling for boilers. For whatever reason, the program was not added.”
The plumbing program was one of four trades studied by a School Improvement Committee established by the Region 11 Board of Directors in 1998. The group surveyed 150 freshmen and sophomore students and asked them to rank their interest in four areas – early childhood education, advanced communications, automotive manufacturing and a plumbing and heating course.
The directors wanted to add one or two more vocational courses at that time. The plumbing course did not rise to the top of the list of most-wanted programs. Advanced communication, early childhood education and automotive manufacturing courses were eventually added to the program offerings.
Lambert said student interest in a plumbing program has been assessed in recent years and modest interest has been found.
“Money’s been tight so we didn’t start it,” he said.
Nigel Norton, career and technology specialist with the state Department of Education, said the need for a plumbing program is determined by the local career and technical school in several ways.
First, the school canvasses local and regional employers to see if there are potential job openings currently and in the foreseeable future. The school also considers the state and national trends in the occupation as a basis for offering a new program. Finally, he said, the school administers a program interest survey that presents students with a choice of potential new programs in a CTE and asks them to rank them accordingly.
Lambert said three schools – Foster Technology Center in Farmington, Lewiston Regional Technical Center and Oxford Hills Technical School – indicated interest last year in starting the program. The Lewiston Regional Technical Center will start a new program in the fall 2017. The Foster Career and Technical Education Center offers a part-time plumbing program now and will go full time in the fall.
Foster Career and Technical School Director Glenn Kapiloff said the part-time program started off half-time this year in order to do some facility upgrades before beginning two plumbing programs for up to 24 students begins next fall.
“I’m pleased we got the students we did and the instructors,” said Kapiloff of the program that had to be pulled together in short order just before the 2015-16 school year started last fall. Kapiloff said Maine has one of the oldest work forces in the country and like all trades, it needs younger folks to sustain it.
“We’re hoping to keep the trades going and keep [the young workers] in this area,” he said.
St. John, code enforcement officer for the town of Otisfield and a member of the local professional plumber planning team for the Oxford Hills Technical School, agreed that there is a need for more plumbers.
“In my seven years sitting on the state Plumber’s Examining Board there were several discussions about recruiting more young people into trade schools. [The] need is to replace about 600 aging plumbers per year but only graduating 200 to 240 [students] from the trade schools,” St. John said.
St. John said it appears to take an apprentice to the trade – who has no formal class time – an average three times to pass the master’s license test even after having as much as 4,000 hours of on-the-job training.
“Safe to say trade school graduates pass with fewer attempts,” St. John said.
St. John said the new local program should help promote students to the idea of a promising career that will always in demand.
Nate Cleveland, a junior at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, said he has applied for both the building trades and the new plumbing program for his senior year.
“I figured it would give me more insight into the plumbing industry and more [job] options,” Cleveland said of his choice to apply to the new plumbing program.
Cleveland, who is looking at going to the Southern Maine Community College after graduation in 2017, said he was talking to a teacher one day about his future plans and was surprised to learn that the school was thinking of instituting a plumbing program.
“It will give me an extra boost when I go into college. I’ll probably know stuff they teach right off the bat,” Cleveland, who plays football and works for his father’s carpentry business, said when asked what advantage he sees to the program.
Although he has no plumbers in his family, he said his dad, a carpenter, said he wished he had gone into the plumbing trade.
Oxford Hills is one of 27 Career Trade Centers located in regional high schools. It offers technical and career fields ranging from computer technology to automotive technology and culinary arts, recognized by the Maine Department of Education and taught by experts with industry-standard equipment and facilities.
The programs are offered to any student who attends Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School or Buckfield High School and has completed their freshman year with at least five credits.
Many of the programs lead to industry-recognized credentials while credits are earned towards high school graduation and post-secondary attainment. Most programs have articulation agreements or lead to an industry pathway, according to information from the Department of Education.
Studies reported by the National Association for Career and Technical Education note that the average high school graduation rate for students concentrating in CTE programs is 93 percent compared to an average national freshmen graduation rate of 80 percent. More than 75 percent of secondary CTE students pursue post secondary education shortly after high school.
At the post secondary level, the NACTE reported students with a CTE-related associate degree or credential earn an average of $4,000 to $19,000 more than students with a humanities associate degree.
Twenty seven percent of those CTE students having less than an associate degree, but holding licenses and certificates, are earning more than the average bachelor degree recipient, the organization reported.