On this episode, we'll be speaking with Troy Benavidez, Government Relations and Policy for LIXIL International, about the skilled labor gap in the plumbing profession and sanitation issues around the world, and Sherry Bradley, director of the Bureau of Environmental Services for the state of Alabama, about the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program (BBUWP) and its collaboration with IAPMO's International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (IWSH) Foundation.
To get in touch with Troy Benavidez, you can find him on LinkedIn or Twitter, and find LIXIL at www.lixil.com.
To get in touch with Sherry Bradley, call her directly at (334) 206-5805. If you want to know more about BBUWP, visit www.bbuwp.org.
Christoph Lohr: Welcome to "The Authority Podcast: Plumbing & Mechanical." When talking about the built environment we would do well to remember: we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Therefore, on each episode, we'll discuss the latest trends from IAPMO in plumbing and mechanical safety, sustainability and resiliency.
Join me, your host, Christoph Lohr. And together, we'll explore the ways we can make our buildings shape us for the better.
Welcome to this episode of "The Authority Podcast: Plumbing & Mechanical." On this episode, we'll be speaking with Troy Benavidez, Government Relations and Policy for LIXIL International, in our news and policy segment. And Sherry Bradley, director of the Bureau of Environmental Services for the state of Alabama, in our "good vibes" segment.
Let's get to it. Here's my conversation with Troy Benavidez, where we discussed the skilled labor gap in the plumbing profession and sanitation issues around the world. Troy, welcome to the show.
Troy Benavidez: Thank you, Christoph. Happy to be here.
Christoph Lohr: Really excited to have you here. So in our policy segment, typically our guests talk about big picture, what's going on in the realm of plumbing and mechanical and construction and the built environment. For our listeners, from your standpoint and from LIXIL's standpoint, what are some of the big-picture policies that are out there or big-picture policy implication, things that you all are following right now?
Yeah, thank you. There are a couple, like I should say there's probably quite a few, but two that we're focused on predominantly are around the skilled labor gap.
We're seeing really a big gap in the amount of plumbers going into the profession. So we want to focus on that issue a lot. The other is addressing the sanitation issues around the world, and more importantly, recognizing and working on the sanitation issues here in the U.S. So those are two of the most important issues for us at LIXIL.
Interesting. So let's break those down one at a time. So the labor shortage, we've had some folks from the industry on that talked about materials shortage and a little bit about labor shortage, but we haven't really focused on the labor shortage side. What are you all seeing in terms of the issues that are occurring with labor shortage and maybe some of the solutions to that?
Troy Benavidez: Yeah. Well, we're seeing labor shortage everywhere, right? Most industries are experiencing that, whether it's post-COVID or whatever the reasons, but the plumbing shortage, or plumber shortage, this has been a problem for quite some time. We're seeing, I think the statistic is, for every five plumbers leaving the profession, one joins, right?
So this isn't sustainable, particularly for our industry. It's the wrong trend, if you want to think about it that way. So we want to encourage people to look at the plumbing profession more seriously, whether it's young people, adults who are looking for career changes, maybe some diversity in the plumbing profession.
Maybe there's more opportunity for women who want to do this. Coming out of COVID, we were thinking, a lot of people who were maybe in service industry, for instance, should they consider this as a better career option? Plumbing is a great career and plumbers, (have) pretty good jobs.
We've done a lot of research on this and we know; we work with plumbers all the time. They're very happy with the job they're in. And so we just want people to know that it's a really good alternative if you want to make a career change. So that's one area where we really want to spend some time.
Christoph Lohr: What is the dollar cost of that skills gap? Have you guys looked at any of that?
Troy Benavidez: We're looking into it now. We'll come out with a report probably in the next month or two. We really looked at it from what's the economic impact of this shortage because it affects us as a business, right?
And many businesses, when you have a labor shortage projects are delayed. You know how hard it is to get a plumber to come to your house. It's a little more costly when there's a shortage. So we're trying to quantify all of that and put it in terms of really the bigger economic impact, because every industry, the automobile industry, the aerospace industry, health care, they all need plumbing. So every industry is being affected by this shortage. We're putting that together and I'd say in about another month or so I can share that with you and we'll be more public with it, but it's pretty significant and it's only going to get worse. That's the issue.
Christoph Lohr: That's interesting. Well, definitely, I think our listeners would be really interested in that report. So obviously there's challenges there, but what are some of the potential solutions or what are some of the ways that you all are working on trying to address that?
Troy Benavidez: Well, we want obviously young people to consider plumbing as a career option; a four-year college education doesn't have to be for everyone.
We've sort of swung the pendulum in that direction. Most parents want their kids to be college grads. And so we really want to communicate the value and also the career opportunities in this profession to young people. And like I said earlier, we also want to appeal to adult populations who maybe want to make a career change.
Maybe military, coming out of the military. These are great businesses to go into, great jobs to go into. And on the policy front, there's a lot that can be done. It was disappointing to see that the funding for vocational education was dropped in the budget. There was an option for free voc-tech education.
And that would have done a lot, because that would have created a financial incentive for people to get this kind of training. So we're going to be creative and do what we can, and the whole industry is talking about it. We're not the only one. So partnering with other companies and businesses, and I think collectively, we can make a pretty big dent in this if we work together.
Christoph Lohr: Those are excellent points, Troy, and I think especially the elevation of knowledge base for the plumbing industry on, for the plumbing installer, I think is a key part of that too, and it can potentially lead to even more value to the market.
Troy, you spoke about collaboration. Can you talk a little bit about the collaboration you've all had specifically with IAPMO and our philanthropic arm, IWSH, because I think that's a really good story for our listeners to hear.
Troy Benavidez: Yeah. We've been collaborating or partnering with IAPMO and IWSH for a few years now. We've worked on the project on the Navajo Nation where we brought water and sanitation to the community there.
We most recently worked together in Lowndes County, Alabama, this community in Alabama, and it's actually across the Black Belt. So it's not just one community, it affects thousands of people; but this community has lived without proper sanitation for forever. I mean, 20, 30 years; this is a problem.
And there's an issue down there with the soil that can't absorb water. So none of the traditional systems that work to deal with sanitation will work in Lowndes County. So this community is just pretty much been left behind when we think about having sanitation in the U.S. — something you and I, and many of your listeners will know, we just sort of flush and walk away, and we take that stuff for granted. And it was really heartbreaking to see raw sewage in people's backyards where their kids are playing, and we just felt we had to do something about it. And partnering with IWSH and IAPMO, the state government, the state of Alabama Department of Health, the University of Southern Alabama, coming together, we were able to bring an innovative solution to the community. We brought in a private sector partner called Fuji Clean that has some really innovative solutions that will work in that soil. So we brought in the private sector, partnering with government, partnering with academic, and we made some progress there in the last couple of weeks with the Community Plumbing Challenge that IWSH runs.
So coming together really helps when you're trying to find or tackle some of these bigger issues.
Christoph Lohr: So the Alabama collaboration then was the second hands-on practical experience working together under a community WASH-focused initiative in the U.S.; that is the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program. Is that correct, Troy?
Troy Benavidez: Yeah, that was the second project we worked with IWSH on.
Christoph Lohr: Excellent. And that kind of brings a question in terms of the BBUWP, the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program. We'll be hearing from Sherry Bradley on another segment about BBUWP. How does BBUWP fit into the U.S. Decentralized Wastewater Innovation Cohort, the U.S. DWIC?
Troy Benavidez: It's really great that they've formed a cohort, and I'm glad that Alabama's part of it because this cohort is finally paying attention to these sanitation challenges that we have in the U.S. There's 2.2 million people I believe who don't have access to plumbing or sanitation in the U.S., so having this cohort that's made up of federal government agencies, state government agencies, private sector, academic institutions, we're finally talking about this problem as a real problem in the U.S. And that's going to be critically important because the first thing you got to do is recognize you have a problem. And Lowndes County, Alabama, was a big problem that raised a lot of awareness that this is happening across the U.S. Every state has this; there are cesspools in Hawaii that are problematic; we've got the Navajo Nation; we've got issues on Long Island, New York. So it it's happening around the country and in different states. So this cohort can come together and work together to finally figure out how to solve these problems.
Christoph Lohr: That's great to hear and really heartening to hear that somebody is starting to address this. Specifically to the BBUWP, when did you first get connected with them, and kindly tell our listeners a little bit about the progression and the context there and the story.
Troy Benavidez: Sure. I joined LIXIL back in 2016, and quickly after that, I heard about this problem in Lowndes County, Alabama, just from reading a newspaper article. And American Standard, one of our biggest brands, we've been dealing with sanitation and sanitation problems for 150 years, so our purpose is to make better homes a reality for everyone everywhere. And that meant looking at this problem in Lowndes and going down there and figuring out what we can do. So it started five years ago, we went down there and it's taken us five years to get to this point, but we stayed engaged with the community down there.
I was able to meet the folks who have been working on it. This was not a new problem. It's something they've been working on for, like I said, 20, 30 years or so, but we were the first private sector partner to go down and offer our services. Whether it was technical expertise, engineering expertise, design expertise, somehow or another, we had to contribute something.
And we've been at it for five years. The solution wasn't readily available or apparent to us right at the start. But we kept at it and by partnering with the local community, we just kept plugging away, and finally got us to this point where we have some viable options for the community.
Christoph Lohr: That's really exciting. And when did IWSH get involved with this?
Troy Benavidez: Yeah, so I've been working, like I said, with IWSH and IAPMO a while. So I think it was about three years ago or so we started; I knew at that time we needed more partners. We needed other expertise, we needed other people who could make a contribution, other organizations that could make a contribution, and having worked with, IWSH on the Navajo Nation, I knew that this could be another Community Plumbing Challenge. This is where you could bring in volunteer plumbers to really give these people the sanitation and water access that they needed. So we started talking and they jumped on board and it just grew. It was one of those challenges that not a single organization could do it. If so, it would have been done. So this requires a collective effort to solve these bigger issues.
Christoph Lohr: I think that's a great point. Well, if you had to summarize our talk in one word, what would it be and why?
Troy Benavidez: Partnership, because these issues are too big for individual organizations, government to solve themselves. And I think we can all have a level of expertise or contribution that when it comes together, you can have a much bigger impact.
Christoph Lohr: Excellent. Well, if our listeners want to get in touch with you or LIXIL, what is the best way for them to do that?
Troy Benavidez: For me, you can find me on LinkedIn or Twitter, but you can find LIXIL at lixil.com.
Christoph Lohr: Excellent. Well, on behalf of "The Authority Podcast: Plumbing & Mechanical," Troy, just want to say thank you so much for your time and for joining me on the podcast today.
Troy Benavidez: Christoph, thank you. Really enjoyed it. Appreciate it.
Christoph Lohr: In our last segment, I talk with Sherry Bradley, director of the Bureau of Environmental Services for the state of Alabama, where we discuss Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program, also known as BBUWP, and its collaboration with IAPMO's International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Foundation, also known as IWSH. Sherry, thanks so much for joining our podcast today.
Sherry Bradley: Well, thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
Christoph Lohr: We're delighted to have you. And I guess this is your first time in your 44-year career doing a podcast. Is that correct?
Sherry Bradley: That is correct. So we'll see.
Christoph Lohr: Well, you thought you saw it all and I guess you're getting even new experiences now. So glad we can throw you a little bit of a curveball, but really appreciate having you on today. For our listeners, the way I got in touch with Sherry was actually through IWSH, and that was the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program. So the BBUWP. And Sherry, I think you are one of the points of contact. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what BBUWP is?
Sherry Bradley: Yes, BBUWP is an entity that was created out of need. It is a 501c3 nonprofit corporation. And what we do is install on-site sewage treatment systems, for right now in Lowndes County, for people without a septic tank system, no proper wastewater disposal. So that's what we do.
Christoph Lohr: Excellent. Excellent. So BBUWP is in Alabama then, or is it a nationwide effort?
Sherry Bradley: No, it's Alabama, and presently, like I said, we're just installing on-site systems in Lowndes County, but it's my understanding that we will be receiving more funding so we will be able to expand to the other Black Belt counties, and there's about 17 other Black Belt counties.
Christoph Lohr: Interesting. And really this idea of wastewater infrastructure, the BBUWP is just kind of one part, it sounds like, maybe of a nationwide effort. My question for you is, and I think this is kind of a real big-picture question, where does BBUWP sit within the present-day U.S. nationwide wastewater innovation and infrastructure development perspective?
Sherry Bradley: Well, just understand that BBUWP, we started this effort four years ago, and even then, because of the soil present in Lowndes County — we call it Black Belt soil — it's impermeable soil, I guess you would say, and what we're doing, we started with Lowndes, but now because of funding coming down, infrastructure funding, again, we're looking at just the Black Belt counties.
That's where you see all what we call straight pipes, meaning a person flush their toilet, this raw sewage goes straight on the ground. So BBUWP has grown. We do have innovation; Dr. Kevin White, he's the engineer on BBUWP, and we actually created infrastructure in Lowndes County. There was no infrastructure in the unincorporated areas.
So we've grown since that time.
Christoph Lohr: That's amazing. And nationally is BBUWP the only program out there, or is there a number of other programs that BBUWP is aware of or works with?
Sherry Bradley: We are not aware of any other program like this one. Now there are programs that install systems, but what makes theirs and ours different is the fact that we install the on-site system, we collect what we call $20 a month from the homeowner. And I know $20 doesn't seem like a lot, but to someone that receives $600 a month, it's a lot. And we maintain the system. We get the systems pumped out. We want to make sure these systems are maintained.
Christoph Lohr: That makes sense. BBUWP recently welcomed IAPMO's charitable foundation, IWSH, to Lowndes County, Alabama, hosting a Community Plumbing Challenge, is also known as the CPC, event. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what was involved in that project?
Sherry Bradley: Let me tell you, that was the most perfect project. First of all, when they came in, when IWSH came in, myself and my community liaison, we had to be trained on how to do a house assessment.
And we worked the whole weekend. Once we learned how to do a house assessment, five homes were chosen. When we left those homes, the homeowners were so happy. Things that they didn't fix like, it could have been something like a light bulb missing or some type of fixture missing in the kitchen like hot water handle or what have you, they were so happy and the word has just spread like wildfire. I have sitting on my desk over 80 applications now to get on the BBUWP program. And that's the only way that we pulled in IWSH is for people on this program. IWSH made a difference and that's what we love to see.
Excellent. Excellent. And, early in the show we heard from Troy Benavidez of LIXIL and how there was a number of plumbing industry partners. Can you talk a little bit about how the plumbing industry partnered and contributed to this BBUWP effort via the pilot CPC project?
Well, we had many partners, and that's a good thing.
LIXIL, some people know them by American Standard; Fuji Clean, who actually contributes the tank, the septic tank for the homes. We want Fuji Clean because it cleans up all the effluent before it goes out into the environment. But we have now IWSH, IAPMO. We are just growing in partnership, but it takes a village because for 25 years, I have sat here listening to people say sewage is on the ground, but nobody did anything.
So once the program we created, BBUWP, it's gotten bigger and bigger, but it's from people listening to what we do. We've been on CBS "60 Minutes," newspaper, now a podcast. So the more we talk, the more people are coming in, and we need that partnership.
Christoph Lohr: Excellent. Excellent. Well, speaking of those partnerships, any other comments from you about the role of plumbing and licensed plumbers in the BBUWP?
Sherry Bradley: Yes, let me tell you what I'm going with. That I'm going to contact the superintendent of education in Lowndes County. I want to get this project on their curriculum and I did find out that was a vocation school that they have there in Lowndes County. So if I can connect the IWSH project and the vocation school and get some 11th- and 12th-graders just on the weekends to go out to the homes and do the house assessment, the home assessment, that information comes back to us summarized on what we need to fix. In come the volunteer plumbers. Now at some point, I need to raise some funding for that, because just think about it 11th- and 12th-graders on the weekends, if you pay them, they'll work. If you don't, you won't see them. So I'm on the end now trying to raise some funds to get this project, I want to be partners with IWSH. This is something we need.
Christoph Lohr: Excellent. Excellent. Obviously the plumbing industry has become involved and there sounds like there's more opportunity even for more involvement. But a big part of this is obviously the homeowners. What has been your experience or your impression of how many homeowners have come forward with interest in this solution?
Sherry Bradley: Well, let me say now, first of all, in any rural area, it's hard to gain trust. But the fact that I've been working there off and on for four weeks, going down at least twice a week, I've gained their trust.
But even with that, when I brought in IWSH and we were doing the home assessment, you could tell the homeowner was very untrusting and I had to sit down and just talk to them. But after they left, then it registered with them what they were doing. It's like, "Wait a minute, this is good." So they're telling their friends, they're telling their neighbors.
And that's why I said earlier, we have been flooded with applications, so much so that I'm going to have to hire a full-time secretary.
Christoph Lohr: That's amazing. Roughly how many applications do you think you've gotten at this point?
Sherry Bradley: Oh, about 125 since IWSH has been here.
Christoph Lohr: That's amazing. That's amazing. So obviously that's a lot of work.
How long do you think it's going to take to address all of them? All of the projects?
Sherry Bradley: Well, it's going to take me about two months to get everything straight with the superintendent of education in the vocation school and get the proper memorandum of understandings in place. And then as far as the training, that's not a problem.
We can train the young men as long as we have a leader, but after that, it's going to take about two to three years, depending on the funding, to go in and get all the homeowners situated. So it's going to be about a three-year project.
Christoph Lohr: Wow, that's amazing. Well, obviously there's a lot of moving parts here, whether it's your partners in the plumbing industry, IWSH, the homeowners themselves, right, that have to obviously want to partake in this as well. How did you pull together this coalition of support?
Sherry Bradley: Actually, again, I think just by people hearing about what we're doing, but let me go back a little farther. I think the nation has heard about sewage on the ground in Lowndes County, but no one was doing anything about it.
Then when people realized that, "Oh, there's an organization that's trying to put in septic tank systems," believe it or not, we started receiving funding, something I never thought about, that the public sending in funding. We start receiving funding and it's just like a snowball, as it goes downhill, it gets bigger, bigger and bigger.
Everyone is seeing that what we said we're going to do we're doing; not just promise it, we're actually doing it.
Christoph Lohr: That's amazing. That's amazing. Well, as we wrap up the show here today, there's just so much that this project and hearing about this, this gets me really excited too. And I imagine our listeners as well.
If you were going to summarize your talk here today, in terms of takeaways, what was the best takeaway for you and BBUWP from the pilot CPC project?
Sherry Bradley: The best takeaway is that it added to BBUWP. And I was just thinking narrowly about what we could do, just put in a septic tank system, be done.
IWSH now made me think that there's more to it than that — healthy home healthy person. We have to look at the whole picture, the big picture. And they made me think about that.
Christoph Lohr: I love that. All right. So Sherry for our listeners, if they would be interested in learning more about BBUWP or want to get in touch with you or the organization, what's the best way for them to do that?
Sherry Bradley: The best way is actually to call me directly at area code (334) 206-5805. Now that comes directly to my desk. And if you want to know more about what BBUWP is about, go to www.bbuwp.org.
Christoph Lohr: Excellent. And we'll link that in the show notes, show description as well. Well, on behalf of "The Authority Podcast: Plumbing & Mechanical," Sherry, I want to say it was an absolute privilege and honor to have you on here.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for joining us and for the really amazing work that you're doing. I have to say, after this conversation I'm energized and I'm going to have to check out the website and see how maybe I can help out as well.
Sherry Bradley: Thank you so much.
Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of "The Authority Podcast: Plumbing & Mechanical."
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