We've discussed manpower problems in the trades, the need for proper education, basic and specific business issues, strategies on how to survive the current downturn and even reported on some recruitment and training programs started by contractors themselves. There are as many opinions about these subjects as there are people in the industry. There may be a consensus on a few of those issues, a lot of them or none at all.
The one area that I believe will garner the most, if not universal, agreement is the need for teaching, developing and encouraging trade craft. Defining trade craft is easy — it is a general term that refers to a skill acquired through hands on experience in a trade. It is the bedrock foundation of the profession. One can become a subcontractor by being a good businessman with not much adequate trade craft, but one cannot stay in this business very long without employing skilled tradesmen or being one himself. Trade craft is the glue that binds the business together, and having a work force of poorly trained, semi-skilled craftsmen will get you projects that will reflect that lack of expertise.
As has been noted in my columns on manpower shortfalls, the general opinion of non-trade people toward the construction trades is one of disdain at worst and outright indifference at best. It is a sad commentary on a craft that has been around since the ancient Roman Empire. How much do you think that opinion would change if people knew that an apprentice plumber, as an example, who availed himself of an apprenticeship training program in the trade while working full time, got more hours of education than the average MBA student?
By the numbers
Some might think it is bold to compare an apprentice plumber to an MBA student. However, consider that the apprentice, if he works a full 40-hour work week and attends classes in the evening, averages more than two thousand hours of hands on experience in a very specific, focused curriculum every year of the four year training program. If the apprentice is in a five year program (there are only a few of these programs out there) he would acquire over 10,000 hours of training and education in his field of study.
Compare that with the average 20-hour class week and 10 hours of homework per week for two four month semesters for six years that the average MBA candidate puts in, and dilute that time with classes that are not specific to the student's field of study, such as elective classes, and one could make the case that the apprentice plumber is better educated and skilled at his trade than the MBA student is at the end of their respective training/college regimens.
The apprentice plumber is not only versed in the various manual and mechanical aspects of the trade, he also has, at the minimum, a working knowledge of algebra, trigonometry, geometry, chemistry, fluid dynamics and thermal dynamics. Additionally, the apprentice has, or should have, developed the manual skills to competently layout, install and put into operation the many complex systems that comprise an operational plumbing/mechanical system or systems, according to a standardized code or codes.
It's in the hands
So, the apprentice has all of this great knowledge and, one would assume, a modicum of skill. Not all apprentices are created equal. Not all have the aptitude, attitude and mental acuity that, when combined, produces a skilled, competent journeyman. This is where the model begins to break down. An apprentice who is good with his hands, as well as knowledgeable in the trade is the ideal outcome. A combination of a good attitude, manual talent and applicable knowledge then is the standard to be sought.
As a businessman, you are the face of your company, but your people (or you, if you are a one-man show) are who the customers see, watch and deal with on the job. If a customer sees workmanship that looks good, installed by an individual who is obviously competent and able, that customer will come away with a positive image of you and your company. The flip side of that coin is the apprentice or journeyman who is sloppy, careless, scattered in both his work habit and appearance, or downright incompetent. Such an individual will seriously damage your company's credibility and subsequently its bottom line, not to mention your peace of mind.
The upshot of this discussion is to take another look at our trade, its history and its future. Be cognizant of your field personnel and be demanding in your expectations of their trade craft as well as their performance. Remember: you are not only the “keeper of the flame” of a long and illustrious craft, but you also carry the responsibility to pass on the skills to the next generation. As cruel or mercenary as it may sound, cull your employees to make sure that you are only retaining or training the very best people you can hire. Take advantage of the current job market and really look hard at who you've got on your team. You owe it to yourself to hire, train and retain only the best representatives of our trade.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].