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The Image of the Trades

Aug. 9, 2021
I do think depictions matter, and I think they can work to change people’s attitudes.

So how did the trades in general—and plumbing in particular—get such a bad reputation with today’s younger generation?

Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the clothes plumbers wear while on the job; the coveralls, overalls, and other sorts of durable, comfortable, washable and protective gear it makes sense to wear on a work site. Do people think that’s what plumbers wear all the time? It’s as silly as expecting Tom Brady to show up at a restaurant wearing his football uniform. I’ve met hundreds of plumbers in my life and the standard outfit seems to be khaki pants and a polo shirt.

Is it the physical labor involved? Well, yes, that faucet isn’t going to install itself. There’s tubing to lay out and fittings to sweat or press, and sometimes entire boilers that need to be hauled upstairs or down. But that’s just job security. Until they can come up with a reliable plumbing robot, some guy is always going to have to get in there with a wrench or a press tool or a plunger or whatever.

And what’s so terrible about getting physical anyway? If there was a trainer on Peloton who came up with something called the “Plumber Workout,” (I’m thinking a lot of deep knee bends for some reason) people would be paying money for the chance to try it.

Is it that you’re not working at a desk in an office? Tell that to anyone who has put out their own shingle. Keeping the books, managing your fleet, scheduling, estimating, payroll, system design, customer service—a huge amount of the plumbing business happens at a desk in an office (although it’s true, that office is more and more often a laptop in your truck). Besides, what’s so great about being stuck in an office all day?

Is it the dirt? Well, yes, there’s dirt. And grease and clogged sewage lines and occasionally even toxic sludge. But I don’t think the average plumber is getting any dirtier than, say, the average farmer, and there’s still an aura of romance around farmers in this country. (Don’t even get me started on how far the actual work of being a cowboy is from the myths we’ve built up around cowboys.)

Is it the idea that plumbing is somehow low-class? Well, this isn’t Europe and it certainly isn’t the 19th Century. If we do have a class system in present-day America it’s one based on how many zeros there are in your bank account, and that places most professional plumbers pretty high on the ladder.

Is it depictions in the media? Actually, I can’t remember the last time I saw a plumber on TV or in the movies. It’s almost as if the skilled trades don’t exist in Hollywood—which is weird when you think of all the carpenters and electricians you need to build a film set.

But I do think depictions matter, and I think they can work to change people’s attitudes. That’s why I’m excited about the new video series, American Plumber Stories being put out by Pfister (you can read about it in this month’s Forum). The series follows real plumbers, both on the job and in their private lives, to try and show what the work and the rewards really are.

The image problem is, I think, the real barrier between contractors who need to hire and that next generation of workers. Getting a more accurate picture of what the trade demands and of what the trade offers into the public consciousness is the only way to solve it.

About the Author

Steve Spaulding | Editor-inChief - CONTRACTOR

Steve Spaulding is Editor-in-Chief for CONTRACTOR Magazine. He has been with the magazine since 1996, and has contributed to Radiant Living, NATE Magazine, and other Endeavor Media properties.

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