DANVERS — Five years from now, a plumber will be more important than an attorney.
That's what Cranney Companies President Brian Cranney joked last week, before a North Shore Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Salem.
His point? There aren't enough plumbers to go around. Cranney said he doesn't have enough workers to staff all of the service trucks for his Danvers company, which provides plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical services, among others.
But there's a solution. Cranney has turned to Essex Tech's co-op program, to help train and recruit tomorrow's plumbers, electricians and HVAC technicians. His company is one of several in the region that rely on the technical school for future workers.
"It's the main artery of my business on the North Shore and how I've been able to grow it," Cranney said. Many of the leaders in his company today were first hired as high school juniors. They went on to get their various licenses and work for Cranney full-time.
Essex Tech's co-op program places juniors and seniors with businesses in various fields such as plumbing, electrical, advanced manufacturing, culinary arts and construction, to name a few.
"It's the culmination of a student's program, really," said Lisa Berube, Essex Tech's cooperative education coordinator. "They come here and they get the skills and the training to be able to enter the workforce, so the cooperative education program is that next piece, if you will, that gets them into the workforce out of the school setting to apply those skills."
The students work in a co-op job for one week, then take high-school academic courses the following week, off and on throughout the school year. They often earn more than the minimum wage.
Culinary arts sophomore Emma Bedard, 15, of Salem, said she is looking forward to joining the co-op program next year. Bedard, who aspires to be a baker, was working at the school's Maple Street Bistro last week.
"I think it's amazing because you can actually get the skills and everything you need and it helps you get jobs going out of high school," she said.
"I think it's pretty close experience to the real world," said sophomore Jack Donovan, 16, of Peabody, about what he's doing in the school's advanced manufacturing shop. Donovan said he had been thinking about a future in mechanical engineering, but the skills he is learning now are closely related.
"I also like using my hands and getting dirty. It's just such a fun shop to learn in," said Donovan, who plans to work in a co-op job next year.
The demand to attend Essex Tech has skyrocketed.
The school has gone from under 1,200 students in 2014 to 1,421 students in 25 career and technical programs. Of the 1,200 applications it gets each year, it only has 375 slots.
The regional school is the result of a merger of the former North Shore Tech, Essex Aggie and Peabody high school vocational programs. While it opened several years ago, Superintendent-Director Heidi Riccio, the guest speaker before the North Shore Chamber last week, said the school is already running out of space in some trade areas, including plumbing.
Riccio said the school depends on business leaders like Cranney to show the school what it needs to train its students.
"We also look at them as partners," Riccio said. "They not only hire our students, but we are also hoping to start an adult education program to train existing workforce within that industry, as well as future workforce."
The construction trades are booming, and that means Essex Tech co-op students are in demand, said Bonnie Carr, the school's community relations and partnership coordinator, who also undertakes workforce development.
"The kids go out, they work. They (employers) keep them through the summer. They work all of their senior year, and then they pick them up after graduation," Carr said.
Carr said there is a demand for students in culinary arts, given Salem's restaurant boom. There is also a demand for those studying in health care fields. Last year, North Shore Medical Center took six students who worked in various areas of the hospital, including the emergency room.
"Our high school nursing students," Riccio said, "were working alongside physicians, emergency medical technicians, RNs."
Last week, Essex Tech's plumbing shop was filled with the sounds of banging as students worked on projects in tall, plywood booths.
Riccio said the program has expanded to the point it ran out of space for booths. So, the students built more.
Jim Russell, the grade 11 and grade 12 plumbing instructor, is in charge of connecting students with North Shore plumbing and heating companies. He said his students are in "huge" demand.
"You know, the kids with the skills here you can't get this education even if you are an adult. This doesn't exist," Russell said. "It only exists here, and with only 15 to 18 kids per class, you know, they have skills that you can't get at any other place.
"They know how to do everything," Russell said. "So, the employers like that because they can train them the way they want them but they have the basic, raw talent to work with."
Russell noted there is a shortage of plumbers. Their average age in Massachusetts is 55. But the base wage of an experienced union plumber is approximately $55 an hour, Russell said. Benefits can boost this wage to more than $80 an hour.
"These kids are going to find themselves in a really good job market," said plumbing instructor Karl Jacobson. The connection to local plumbing businesses through the co-op program is vital. Many Essex Tech graduates stay with the company they worked for in high school.
In the school's advanced manufacturing shop, where future machinists work on high-tech, precision manufacturing lathes and mills, Riccio noted wages for machinists range from $16 to $100 an hour. Some students are able to work weekends making $30 to $40 an hour.
Instructor Jack Fraizer said from what the students are learning, they can go right into a shop after they graduate. And they are in demand, now, because many people stopped going into the field when work moved overseas.
"We can't even give them enough students because we don't have enough to give to them," Fraizer said. "Right now the demand for just certain companies I know of ... One just said they need 300 people within the next year."