PLUMBERS KNOW more about Thomas Crapper than Blaise Pascal. Commonly credited with inventing the toilet, Crapper's legend pops up in trivia books. Pascal established the principles of hydraulic lifts during the Scientific Revolution, but his theory can cause a serious case of brain strain. Like many Americans, plumbers are action oriented and have a bias against bookworms.
This bias is deafening in the mandatory continuing education classes for Connecticut plumbers. I teach a Business Review course and usually face a sea of unhappy campers. Comments such as, "I've been in business for 20 years — what are you going to teach me?" are reinforced with crossed arms and skeptical smirks.
Some signs of passive resistance are benign: tilting back in a chair, wearing a hat and sunglasses, face turned to the ceiling; neglecting to bring a pen or pencil; taking a cell phone call in class. Finalists in a "plumbers behaving badly" contest would include one group I had that sat in the back of a hotel room and took turns visiting the bar. Who knew adult education required hall monitors?
I am happy to report that many contractors tell me they've learned something by the end of the class. Examples include that all workers need completed 1-9s, not just the people born in other countries. Negligent hiring can bring a company to its knees. Financial ratios can signal when the business is turning a corner. Satisfaction surveys are underutilized in the plumbing industry and can dispel the belief that customers only care about cost. The FACT act requires vigilance when disposing of customer information.
Within a limit of three hours, I work to help contractors identify resources and to challenge their own assumptions. It is the rare business owner who has the current sales tax book, a business "bible" and a grasp of labor laws.
In the technical plumbing classes, maybe one out of 25 participants owns the 2003 International Plumbing Code book. The fact that handicap accessibility moved from the plumbing code to the building code comes as a surprise to many. New requirements about grease traps are general knowledge, but the devil is in the details — which are poorly understood.
Don't get me wrong. Coming from a plumbing family, and being a small business owner myself, I know how many fires have to be put out every day. Staying current with regulations and taking time to learn something new can seem like a luxury.
However, I suspect that plumbers' classroom resistance goes back to childhood. If they suffered under teachers who believed IQ was only measured by a written test, mechanical abilities took a back seat. Multiple intelligence theory describes at least seven ways of being smart, including working with your hands and the ability to size up spaces. Clearly, books aren't the only way to learn.
Also, adults like to be experts. Unlike kids, they are afraid to risk looking stupid by asking questions. Curiosity is smothered by the need to appear competent. My fellow instructors at the Center for Occupational Development and Education try to set a tone of mutual respect, but generating open discussion in the class can be challenging. One exception is people who endured six hours of listening to someone read out of a code book at another school — they welcomed the chance to participate.
A contractor stated that apprentices should not have to take classes at all — plumbing can be learned through repetition, one toilet at a time. This runs counter to the approach my husband used when he taught an apprenticeship class in Science. Bill earned a degree in Natural Resources and ran the family plumbing business before becoming a plumbing inspector 10 years ago. He emphasized to his students how important it is to understand the theory of water; otherwise, how could they begin to solve problems in the field?
Bill makes a big hit in the technical continuing education class showing pictures taken during inspections. Initially called the "Hall of Shame," the series now includes examples of good craftsmanship.
He shows the slides at the end of class, and there is a sudden burst of energy as participants get to laugh at the mistakes of others and ask questions about unique solutions. I think the popularity of the photos is due to " misery loves company" as well as a comfort level with concrete examples.
Classroom training and a complete set of reference books are essential for staying current in the plumbing industry. Theory and practical application are two sides of the same coin: The Roman aqueducts flowed into Newton's law of gravity. While experience is the ultimate teacher, the school of hard knocks is expensive. Sign up for a class today — I promise you will learn something.
Oh, and please remember to turn off your cell phone!
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 the state of Connecticut for the Center for Occupational Development and Education. Her father, George Farkas, is a retired plumbing contractor and a past president of Connecticut Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors. Her husband, Bill Lussier, is a plumbing inspector, holds a building official's license and teaches technical continuing education classes for the Center for Occupational Development and Education. She can be reached by phone at 203/265-1977, via e-mail at [email protected] or on her Website at www.practicalhr.com