Fresno Plumbing & Heating taps unconventional sources to provide job opportunities
by Erica Bender
Heating, Inc., based in Fresno, California, is not your average plumbing contractor. While this nearly 80-year-old, family-owned operation offers many of the same installation, repair and preventative maintenance solutions as its competitors, company leaders say its diverse range of expertise in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors is second-to-none. This experience—paired with year-round training initiatives, a comprehensive safety program and use of the latest industry technologies—enables team members to complete projects of varying scale, scope and complexity.
(The Kumpe family has managed the business since 1978. Shown here is President Larry Kumpe (right) with Chief Estimator Dalon Hankins.)
What’s more, the company has grown to become one of California’s largest plumbing contracting firms. Fresno Plumbing & Heating, together with its Coastal Plumbing division in Salinas, currently employs just over 400 people.
“To make a business like ours thrive, you have to hire good people—and fortunately we have done that,” says Office Administrator Debbie Kumpe, who is the wife of company President Larry Kumpe. “If you don’t have staff members who are talented and committed, you can’t grow.”
‘It’s All About the People’
Finding and retaining high-quality talent is a key focus for the leaders of Fresno Plumbing & Heating, who take pride in having a high number of seasoned employees—many of whom have been with the company for at least 10, 15 or 20 years, and some even past 30 years.
(The company leadership’s supportive and caring attitude toward employees helps them feel valued and respected.)
“We believe in hiring for the long term. We’re always looking for the person who will be here 10 years from now, not the person who’ll be gone within a year,” Debbie says.
With a focus on employee longevity, the company offers competitive pay and an attractive benefits package. Its leaders also strive to recognize and reward employees for exceptional performance as well as promote from within whenever possible, as advancement through the company ranks is a key motivator for many individuals. To ensure workers stay engaged and excel in their designated roles, the company pays for certifications, specialized training and other forms of professional development.
“Taking care of employees, and giving them a reason to look forward to coming to work each day, is just part of our company culture. It’s all about the people. Without good team members, you’re not going to succeed,” Debbie affirms.
Safety Director Kristine Ballecer agrees. She says the leadership’s supportive and caring attitude makes employees feel valued. The company, in turn, reaps enormous benefits by having a more productive staff that conducts itself at a higher standard—which leaves a positive impression on clients.
“When you go out on the job sites and you see the level of professionalism of our employees, it’s just markedly different compared to the conduct of other tradespersons. I think that’s because of our company culture. We believe in our staff. We do what we need to do to help them achieve what they want in terms of professional growth,” Kristine says.
Strength in Diversity
Another hallmark of this business is how it embraces workforce diversity in all forms, fostering the type of accepting and nonjudgmental atmosphere that many employees crave.
“We really embrace diversity. It makes our work environment richer and better,” Kristine says. “There are seven different languages spoken here. Our workforce is representative of many different nationalities, races, religions, ages, genders, socioeconomic situations and other backgrounds. I think it’s fantastic to have people from all walks of life working together.”
For people who may have felt stifled or trapped by a previous employment situation, encouragement received from the Fresno Plumbing & Heating team can help them break through mental barriers and thrive.
Kristine says, “Some folks have been told all of their lives that all they’re ever going to be is a laborer, maybe because they can’t speak the language as well as someone else, or because they have a criminal background, or because they didn’t finish high school. As a result, these individuals feel they can’t achieve their professional goals because they don’t have what it takes—that they’re limited. But to see these people come out of their shells as they transition to our work culture—to see them thrive and strive to do better for themselves by moving up the ranks—that’s gratifying for us.”
Fresno Plumbing & Heating would love to add more women to its field team, Debbie says. “We currently have Kristine who is out in the field. We’d like to hire more women, but we just aren’t finding that many who are interested. We’re not a trade that has allure for most women, even though the money is very good and the training we provide is exceptional,” she adds.
Kristine admits, “It’s a hard vocation to market to women because it’s not a traditional occupation for them. But we’re starting to see more and more women go into the trades, which is promising.”
“We believe in our staff. We do what we need to do to help them achieve what they want in terms of professional growth.” Kristine Ballecer, Safety Director,Fresno Plumbing & Heating, Inc.
Filling the Skilled Trades Gap
The skilled trades also have a tough time attracting young workers, even though jobs abound and there is plenty of room for economic mobility and professional advancement. In the U.S., four out of five construction firms report having a hard time filling hourly craft positions, which represent the bulk of the construction workforce, according to the results of an industrywide survey released in August by Autodesk and the Associated General Contractors of America.
There are various stigmas associated with these types of occupations (e.g., it is a boring line of work, or a job for people lacking talent), which can serve as a roadblock to what can become a stimulating, respectable career. In the K-12 educational setting, the push to go to a four-year university can sometimes dissuade students from even considering the trades as an option. But according to studies in recent years conducted by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, in the U.S., there are around 30 million good-paying jobs across various industries where workers earn an average $55,000 per year without having a bachelor’s degree.
“For all of those kids who absolutely hate being stuck in a classroom, but they’re very handy with their hands, going the non-college route doesn’t mean they can’t be successful. They absolutely can be successful. It’s all about their ambition and desire to do something better with their lives—and there are lots of possibilities for them in the skilled trades,” Debbie says.
“But you also need someone who’s willing to give you a chance,” Kristine points out. “A lot of employers, regardless of the industry, want people with at least five or 10 years of experience before they will even consider hiring them. Well, where do you get the experience? It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg.”
Fresno Plumbing & Heating has a different approach to the hiring process: it looks beyond education and experience and instead seeks passion and potential.
“We have our own in-house safety and professional training programs. If someone doesn’t have a lick of plumbing experience, but has a great work ethic and genuine interest in this field, we’re willing to give them a chance and teach them a trade,” Kristine says. The company is also willing to work with employees after-hours to help them get their GEDs or their driver licenses. “Those are big barriers to moving forward in the world for some individuals,” she adds, “so we eliminate these obstacles to help them achieve more in life.”
A Belief in Second Chances
For decades, Fresno Plumbing & Heating has partnered with various area programs to provide job opportunities to those in desperate or seemingly hopeless situations. Examples include Hope Now For Youth, a nonprofit that works to get youth out of gangs and into productive lifestyles, and New Door Ventures, an organization that uses employment to help young people get on a track for success. Fresno Plumbing & Heating also has worked with several highways and hedges-type ministries that connect homeless or needy individuals with employers willing to hire them.
“Over the years we’ve hired a couple of hundred individuals from these types of programs—including programs for ex-offenders. We’ve always been a company that believes in second chances,” Debbie says. “If any of these individuals shows a real desire to learn more after completing our in-house training classes, we’ll offer to pay for them to enroll in one of two state-approved, four-year apprenticeship training programs we partner with.” The company currently works with apprenticeship programs offered through the Associated Builders and Contractors - Northern California Chapter and the PHCC Educational Foundation.
Debbie continues, “Our hiring and training methodology works. It just takes time and a willingness to see the value in people.”
A Heart for Community
This focus on helping others also extends to philanthropic acts of kindness through the financial and volunteer support of a plethora of charitable causes.
Debbie shares a few examples: “We’ve done food drives for shelters such as the Fresno Rescue Mission, the Poverello House and the Marjaree Mason Center. We’re an avid supporter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Valley Children’s Hospital and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. And we’ve donated plumbing materials and installation services for various local organizations, including Sherry’s House and Youth for Christ.”
“We also support an incredible group called Kids On A Mission,” she adds. Established in 2008 by an 8-year-old named Kaitlin, this nonprofit empowers school-age children to raise donations to help those in need around the world. These benevolent initiatives include programs to build playgrounds and drill water wells in third-world countries, and to send supplies-filled backpacks to schools.
“Several of these youth came in last year and explained why it was so important for us to fund the construction of a new water well in El Salvador. We were very pleased to give them a check!” Debbie shares. She adds, “We like to encourage children to be community-minded by modeling social responsibility. We want to show them their efforts to try to take care of others are going to be rewarded.”
Kristine comments, “It’s awesome to find ways to empower young people. You’re not just creating a philanthropist for a day; you’re helping to develop one for the next 80 years.”
Active leadership in community development and workforce development programs is also a major focus for the members of Fresno Plumbing & Heating.
“Larry sits on many of the planning boards of local churches that are planning future expansions. We’re always trying to help local programs for veterans, and our team is also devoting more time these days to support the Fresno Unified School District’s career and technical education program,” Debbie says.
Kristine notes, “Our hope for the future is that there is an increased focus on vocational education for our youth. We have a tremendous skills gap that’s coming up. A lot of the skilled tradespeople, even the facilities maintenance people, are in the 45- to 65-year-old range and they’re headed toward retirement. There’s not a lot of people to fill that void, so we have to keep focusing on developing our youth.”
Looking to the Future
As Fresno Plumbing & Heating journeys into the future, its leadership plans to continue investing in the lives of its staff and the community at large. With its barrier-breaking hiring methodology and zeal for exposing youth to the skilled trades, this team’s prospects for recruiting and retaining high-quality talent looks promising.