The Fifth Option — Finding a career is easier than you think

When she is talking to school groups and community organizations, Anja Smith of All Clear Plumbing says she tried all four options typically given to high school seniors on the cusp of facing a brand new world.

Four-year college. Two-year college. The military. Non-skilled jobs.

Each taught valuable lessons and gave her the unique perspective to share the value of the fifth option, skilled trade apprenticeships. Plumbing specifically because that is her niche with All Clear Plumbing, but the reality is South Carolina and the rest of the country needs to power up its skilled trade work force.

Plumbing and pipefitting jobs nationally are expected to grow at nearly double the rate of the rest of the workforce, due to growth & an aging workforce. The plumbing and HVAC industry is expected to add 138,000 new workers by 2022 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, almost 158,000 plumbers will be eligible for retirement 2022 as well.

“Plumbing and air quality, these are important to public health and safety,” she said. “They aren’t going anywhere and we need qualified individuals to maintain and build them.”

However, skills like plumbing are not really pushed for high school students in South Carolina, which is something that All Clear Plumbing, which is independent and home grown brand, is working to change, she said. As one of the founding members of South Carolina’s first chapter of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association, they are part of a rising tide of plumbing and HVAC contractors who share these concerns about the industry’s future.

How does a 32-year-old female make the jump to being a partner in a plumbing business? Like many in this industry, she is second generation. It starts with her father, Scott, who began learning trade skills at a young age. Scott Smith eventually became a master plumber after the family moved to South Carolina just as she was starting high school.

The demand for a Master Plumber skills are high. But too many times, sales come before skills during the hiring process. So Scott, Anja, and his wife, Trina, formed All Clear Plumbing in 2012 with the goal of being a different kind of plumbing company.

“We set out to build a plumbing company with a business model your grandfather could recognize,” she said.

That includes a focus on what is best for the customers and employees, rather than sales, she said. Employees are evaluated on their credentials, character, and skills. The company also hires apprentices, who have no previous industry experience and trains them using U.S. Department of Labor standards, a rare opportunity for such a formalized trade learning program in South Carolina.

All Clear Plumbing now has 10 employees and operates pretty much anywhere in the 864 area code with a home base just south of Interstate 85. Anja Smith joined the company full time in early 2015 after her position as the executive of a tech company ended. Prior to this she worked as a freelance marketing and design consultant, and held various other jobs in the marketing and design industry.

As a family owned and operated company, each of the owners wears multiple hats, and for Anja, one of those is as a plumbing apprentice herself. It is really important for her to understand the technical end of the business she is helping run, she says.

While Anja brings the marketing background to All Clear Plumbing, her mother Trina, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the banking industry, brings the financial and operations background. Scott handles field operations, manages the plumbing staff, and acts as chief problem solver. Scott has an excellent reputation in our industry for being the guy you go to when you are stuck, says Anja. His problem solving skills are really unparalleled.

“I find energy in challenges and am always striving to create a positive impact wherever I go,” she said. “Much of my value comes from building into the company’s processes and culture. I thrive off of the wearing of many hats and being challenged. Of all of the paths I’ve taken, learning the plumbing trade is among the most rewarding. It gives me a tremendous amount of pride and satisfaction to be able to help save the customers day.”