Continuing education: A cautionary tale

INDUSTRY EDUCATOR ONLY TWO YEARS old, Connecticut's continuing education requirement for plumbers has suffered a series of setbacks: First, the program was not vigorously enforced; second, the annual number of required hours was reduced; and third, plumbers now only have to attend class bi-annually, with 2007 as a skip year. To me, this signals a lack of collective will power. As a survivor of several

INDUSTRY EDUCATOR

ONLY TWO YEARS old, Connecticut's continuing education requirement for plumbers has suffered a series of setbacks: First, the program was not vigorously enforced; second, the annual number of required hours was reduced; and third, plumbers now only have to attend class bi-annually, with 2007 as a skip year. To me, this signals a lack of collective will power.

As a survivor of several start-ups, I should not be surprised at how bureaucracy and self-interest can conspire against improvement programs. Ventures start with the best of intentions, and the players proceed with realistic hope. The dark side always follows.

In the case of continuing education in Connecticut, some forms of resistance were predictable, others unique. While the dust has not settled on this story, I offer my perspective to any group considering a similar initiative.

As I expressed in the August issue of CONTRACTOR, plumbers are generally disinclined to go to school. In "We don't need no stinkin' books!" (pg. 30), I speculate on reasons for their reluctance but also report that some come to appreciate the learning experience.

Recently, my husband was the technical instructor for a class filled with people who put off enrolling as long as possible. Some of the most vocal complainers were the ones who monopolized his time during breaks. Knowing he was a plumbing inspector, they sought his advice on specific jobs and asked about reference materials. Class evaluations were positive, as usual.

Since the early days, however, a small, fierce group in Connecticut fought continuing education. It mounted a legal campaign and was instrumental in watering down the requirements. Proponents burned up a lot of resources defending the value of continuing education that would have been better spent on implementation. We all gained an education in the legislative process.

I had a similar experience 20 years ago but in a corporate setting. I was project manager for an office designed to develop self-managed teams. The setting was a health claims department of a Fortune 100 insurance company. Claims processors are not known for their responsive customer service, and the work can be thankless. The jobs were reconfigured to include increased training and autonomy, a win-win for the insureds, the employees and the company.

But this new business model threatened the 40 existing claim offices across the country. Despite a compelling business case and a $2 million investment, the start-up was no match for the establishment. The office was disbanded after two years and management vowed to put the promising ideas "on the shelf" for future reference.

My next challenge involved automating marketing field offices. In the 1980s, salespeople did not have computer skills, but the world was changing around them. Apple computers were the most user-friendly, but IBM had the corporate market sewn up. Our Harvard-trained leader championed the installation of a Macintosh in every office, to the tune of $12 million. Six pallets of computer training equipment circled the country, blowing fuses in not a few hotels.

The sales guys, and they were mostly men, were as reluctant as plumbers. But they eventually got dragged into the next century, giving the company an edge. IBM did not give up so easily. It won back the corporate account and the Apples were thrown out the window. While a substantial amount of money was squandered, overall progress was achieved.

Connecticut's continuing education story is still being written. It seems as though the state licensing agency is passively letting the program unravel, encouraging those plumbers who are watching to see if this program has teeth. In the corporate world we called that "flavor of the month." New initiatives would be supported by slick campaign material, but many were just overtures. Cynical corporate survivors would lean back in their chairs, let the hot air blow past and then go back to business as usual.

I hope the need to increase the professionalism of the plumbing industry will reach a tipping point, and new proponents of continuing education will arise and carry it forward.

Connecticut Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors started the school I am associated with — The Center for Occupational Development and Education — with generous donations from industry leaders and members. Instructors were recruited from technical schools, building departments and successful contracting companies. Curriculums offered a review in technical and business issues, supported by comprehensive class manuals. Thousands of journeymen and contractors were trained, and the school earned a professional reputation. Recently, a permanent training facility was established.

The school, however, will be significantly affected by the current situation. I cannot imagine how the new school will thrive during a year without continuing education requirements. It looks like the naysayers have won the early rounds in this battle.

For any group contemplating mandatory continuing education, the typical plumber is not your biggest worry. Rather, it's the small percentage of negative people who resist any new regulation with a vengeance.

Georgian Lussier is the principal of G.F. Lussier & Associates, which provides management consulting and training to a variety of industries. She teaches the Business Review continuing education classes throughout Connecticut for the Center for Occupational Development and Education. Her father, George Farkas, is a retired plumbing contractor and past president of the Connecticut Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors. She can be reached by telephone at 203/265-1977, via e-mail at [email protected] or on her Website at www.practicalhr.com