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Perks for Plumbers: Hawaiian Vacations, Craft Beer and ‘a Lot of Zen’

FORT COLLINS, Colo.—The fast-growing business offers all the perks a pampered Silicon Valley tech worker might expect: An on-site tap flows with craft beer and the kitchen is stocked with locally roasted espresso beans. There is a putting green and a smoker for brisket lunches. Next up: a yoga studio.

Welcome to the gushing job market…for plumbers.

Colorado’s Neuworks Mechanical Inc. employs 75 plumbers but needs 15 to 20 more. To keep them happy, it offers “a lot of Zen,” says business-development manager Jackie Sindelar. That includes a sharing exercise that “brings out your raw emotions and makes you vulnerable,” she says.

Drained from a labor shortage, the plumbing industry is throwing the kitchen sink at job candidates.

Bonfe’s Plumbing, Heating & Air Service Inc. of South St. Paul, Minn., boasts an array of arcade games and a “quiet room”—a plush hangout space with insulated walls painted a calming sky blue. It has a lockable door, a comfy couch, a recliner and a sound machine that babbles with the soothing audio of ocean waves.

“When people have a bad day they go in there,” says Mr. Bonfe. “They literally check out for a while.” Mr. Bonfe, a veteran plumber and president of the 120-employee family business, could use the room himself some days, noting that the labor market is “the hardest I have ever seen.”

Plumbing employers are plugging on-site spa treatments, exotic trips and jet-ski outings. The Sunny Plumber—which serves the southwest with the slogan “Bright and Shiny and Won’t Show Our Hiney”—has job announcements offering free laundry service and “a suite at the Arizona Cardinals games for you and your family.”

In Manassas, Va., My Plumber Heating & Cooling is trumpeting “biweekly, on-site massages.” Across Virginia, Wisler Plumbing, Inc.’s February radio recruitment ad promised “a hot breakfast every morning.”

“We do that to set ourselves apart,” says President James Wisler, of the daily 7 a.m. repast that can include sausage, gravy and biscuits.

Kerry Stackpole, executive director of the Plumbing Manufacturers International, a trade group, described the race for talent as very real. And the profession’s reputation of being a bit of a drip presents an obstacle to recruiting and drawing new people to the field.

“It’s ‘the butt crack;’ it’s ‘the slobs,’ ” sighed S.J. Peters, the executive director of a Midwestern plumbing group, referring to tired misperceptions swirling around the trade.

U.S. job openings hit a record 6.6 million in March, with the construction industry<https://www.wsj.com/articles/economic-milestone-there-is-a-job-for-everyone-who-wants-one-1525797993?mod=article_inline>—where plumbers are heavily employed—seeing one of the largest jumps.

Building, needed repairs and retirements are fueling demand for plumbers at the same time the U.S. jobless rate<https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-adds-164-000-jobs-in-april-unemployment-falls-to-3-9-1525437126?mod=article_inline&mod=article_inline> in April fell below 4% for the first time since late 2000.

The annual median pay for plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters was nearly $53,000 per year in 2017, according to federal data, but it isn’t uncommon to see jobs advertised for far higher wages, from $70,000 up to six figures.

“Our phone is ringing off the hook but we don’t have the skilled folks,” says Jonathan Bancroft, chief executive of Morris-Jenkins Inc. in Charlotte, N.C. The plumbing, heating and air-conditioning company is one of many offering to train unskilled people.

And to further distinguish itself, Morris-Jenkins is positioning its workplace as overflowing with fun.

“We like to play games and wear costumes…a lot!” say current Morris-Jenkins job postings that praise the “legendary” company breakfasts. In one event, Mr. Bancroft says, employees received mullet wigs for “Mullet Monday.”

Bob Hamilton Plumbing, Heating, A/C and Rooter in Overland Park, Kan., recently bumped its signing bonus to $5,000 from $1,000, says owner Bob Hamilton, whose corporate motto proclaims “Better Call Bob!”

The company added a perk in April: employer-sponsored pottery classes.

“I made a couple of bowls and what turned out to be a toothpick holder,” says Paul Smith, a veteran plumber and supervisor there. “It was a blast.”

Candidates know the fringe benefits are overflowing, according to Alex Kramien, chief operating officer of George Morlan Plumbing Co. in Portland, Ore.

A few weeks ago, he started aggressively recruiting out of state—offering to cover moving costs—and says “pet insurance has been brought up more than a few times in interviews.” (He’s looking into it and he gets the appeal: He says his own father spent $1,200 for cancer treatment for his goose George.)

In the meantime, Mr. Kramien waves concert tickets, “week in paradise” Hawaii trips, and use of the company-owned beach house and condo on the Oregon Coast. New plumber jobs at his company pay $44.84 per hour plus benefits.

Plumber Jason Braukman briefly left George Morlan, drawn by signing bonuses and opportunities elsewhere, but says the company’s benefits lured him back.

“We’re like top dogs now,” he says of plumbers.

That reality is one reason Wyatt Hepworth recently unveiled a new indoor basketball court at his business, Any Hour Electric, Plumbing, Heating & Air in Orem, Utah. He also made the company gym “six times larger.”

His technicians get other job offers weekly. Watchful managers whisk employees being courted by competitors off on company time, he says, for a half-day of fun, like jet-skiing.

And of course, “everyone is going to get swag,” he says of Any Hour’s shirts, caps, sunglasses and backpacks for the whole family.

A promise of a “brand new truck” that plumbers can drive home is helping Wilder, Ky.-based Jolly Plumbing, says operations director Scott Sharrock.

Jolly—where “A Flush Beats a Full House”—has its own indoor basketball court, two 72-inch televisions for sports viewing and allows plumbers to use Jolly’s building and large fully remodeled kitchen anytime for personal family shindigs.

“We have had a couple big parties with a lot of beer cans left over,” says Mr. Sharrock, adding that basketball games have led to busted ceiling tiles.

But the extras, he says, are necessary. “We can’t hire plumbers fast enough.”

Write to Jennifer Levitz at jennifer.levitz@wsj.com<mailto:jennifer.levitz@wsj.com>

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