Plumber George Doughty survived the recession by not taking a salary and drawing on savings. And he looked for other work in construction.

“I know how to swing a hammer, but there was nothing going on,” said Doughty, who is based in Brunswick. “Everyone else was in the same boat.”

In 2009, Doughty trained and became licensed to install natural gas, oil and wood-pellet boilers and mini-split heat pumps. But demand for that work didn’t start to pick up until last year, he said.

Doughty’s son, also a plumber, was laid off when the recession began, got retrained and went into sales of industrial roofing. Like other out-of-work plumbers, he left the trade. Other plumbers retired, or traveled to other parts of New England to find more work, said John Napolitano, business manager for Maine Plumbers and Pipefitters UA Local 716, which represents 500 plumbers and pipefitters in Maine.

The state had 1,523 plumbers and heating, ventilation and air conditioning – or HVAC – contractors in 2013, down from 1,804 in 2004, according to the Maine Department of Labor. But that includes apprentices. And it may include people who are holding licenses but aren’t actively working, Napolitano said.

In 2011, the closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station zapped another source of Doughty’s business. In the last year, the closure of paper mills – where many plumbers do maintenance work – dealt another blow to plumbers.

“That hurts us,” said Napolitano, who is also president of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council. “Although it’s starting to pick up, it’s not enough to make up for the lost jobs that we’ve seen in the past few years.”

To compound problems, there has been a dearth of new plumbers getting into the business, said Napolitano. In order to become a plumber licensed by the state, a person must complete the state’s Plumber or Pipefitter Apprenticeship Program, which includes at least 4,000 hours of apprenticeship under a master plumber.

Now that demand is starting to tick up again, there are fewer plumbers to handle the work. And like so many other aspects of the construction economy, that’s slowing down the state’s overall recovery, Napolitano said.

It’s also making work more stressful and busier than ever for Doughty. He may be able to take a salary again, but he’s working harder than ever for it.

“A lot of stuff that should have been maintained over the last six years (and) wasn’t is now giving people trouble,” Doughty said. “I find myself running constantly to keep everybody going and they all wanted me yesterday. I can’t keep up.”

Since he’s driving all over the region to do more jobs than ever, he is spending more on gas for his truck and other operating expenses for his business.

“I look at the money that comes in and goes out and I shake my head,” he said. “I’d rather have it this way than what it was during the recession. But both ways are stressful.”

Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at:

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