Tapping into the inner idealist in young people

Young people can get from this industry so much more than just a paycheck. HOW TO ATTRACT young people into the plumbing business is an issue that confounds contractors, trade associations and those of us who write about this industry which isn't getting younger, by the way, as the graphic on our front page indicates. Most seem to think your biggest competitor is college, although I'm not sure that

Young people can get from this industry so much more than just a paycheck.

HOW TO ATTRACT young people into the plumbing business is an issue that confounds contractors, trade associations and those of us who write about this industry — which isn't getting younger, by the way, as the graphic on our front page indicates.

Most seem to think your biggest competitor is college, although I'm not sure that higher education has a stronger message than you do to win the hearts and minds of your future employees. I received some firsthand experience on this subject during the recent school graduation season.

I reached a milestone of sorts when my youngest graduated from college. I almost called him a "kid," except that he turns 22 this month and just moved to New York to teach in an inner city high school. I know — he probably would be better off in the plumbing business.

As I settled into my seat in the cavernous gym and tried to pick him out in the sea of caps and gowns several hundred feet below me, I was looking forward to what would be my last college commencement speech, at least for awhile. The speaker was a female astronaut, and I was prepared to be inspired by her message.

Basically, she made four points, which I was able to jot down on the back of a business card. Here they are:

  1. Be flexible and willing to change directions;
  2. Make the best decisions you can;
  3. Save some money and join your employer's 401(k) plan; and
  4. Treat people fairly.

Almost in disbelief, I turned to my wife and asked, "That's it?"

That's the message to eager, idealistic young people? Whatever happened to, "You can make a difference" or "Go out and change the world"?

My wife had a different take on what the speaker could have said. Here was a woman who had succeeded in an occupation dominated by men. Not only that, but who takes bigger risks than an astronaut being shot into space? My wife wanted to know what happened to the message to young people about the willingness to take risks to achieve success against large odds.

Now, don't get me wrong. No one is a bigger proponent than I am of being flexible, making good decisions, saving money and treating people fairly. Conceptually, these are all great ideas.

And they're practical. I believe in that too. A few graduation seasons ago, I used this space to dispense what I considered practical advice that I would have given to graduates if I had been given the chance.

I submit to you, however, that the plumbing-and-heating industry can deliver a more inspiring message to young people. By joining you in this industry, they can have a positive impact in making people's lives better.

Look at the soaring prices of energy across the country and the dwindling supplies of clean water in many parts of the nation and around the world. I see you playing a vital role in specifying, buying and installing systems that use energy and water more efficiently.

Perhaps more importantly, I see you taking the lead in educating consumers about how they can conserve energy and water. Who is in a better position to do it than you are with your personal contact with customers? Manufacturers and distributors must work through you to reach end users. Others with direct contact with customers, such as builders, are not demonstrating any leadership here.

As far as attracting young people willing to take risks, who takes more risks in the business world than you do to achieve success? The industry has the room and should accommodate women and minorities who face even larger odds for success.

Yes, young people are interested in the paycheck and benefits that you can offer them. Many of you have a good story to tell here too. Others need to work on this.

It's not, however, just about the paycheck. Young people can get from this industry so much more than that. You may never have the chance to address a class of high school or college graduates, but you should tell the young people you meet that by joining this industry they can make a difference. They might even change the world.