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Is there a silver lining?

March 1, 2010
Plumbing contractor Al Schwartz looks for the silver lining in the economic outlook of the construction industry

The current state of the national (and international) economy is anemic, at best. The prolonged recession (depression?) has sapped almost every ounce of life from the construction trades. I am amazed and dismayed at the toll it has taken here in the Southwest, and can imagine that the rest of the country is faring just as poorly.

If you are reading this column, chances are pretty good that you are still in business. That’s a good thing. The attrition rate for plumbing and HVAC contractors here in Arizona is horrendous with many long established businesses closing their doors. Worse yet, there is no real end to this malaise in sight. So how can I even think about writing a column which talks about a silver lining?

Well, let me give you my insights to see if you agree or disagree. First, it is my considered opinion that the contraction of the economic engine that drives America has gone about as far down as it is likely to go. Not only have we cut the fat, but some muscle and sinew as well. America is almost as lean and mean as it can get except, of course, if you work for the government, and we’re not going there in this column.

Second, there is a great need for infrastructure improvements nationally, and politicians are casting about for "meaningful" projects with which to jump-start an economic recovery. Improvements to such things as highways, bridges, airports and railroad systems are a no brainer for the politically astute. Other municipal projects, such as hospitals and schools, are also garnering the attention of the pork-barrel boys and stimulus dollars.

These projects will, eventually, beget other projects that will eventually beget others, and so on and so forth. How long it will be before those dollars trickle down to the local level is a matter of opinion, but that’s not the silver lining I refer to.

An ill wind?

There is an old saying: "It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good to someone." Considering the current condition of the trades, it would seem that the adage has been proved false. Not so. With the dearth of viable projects, and the failure of so many businesses, there has been a winnowing of the labor force. Layoffs are staggering, and those contractors that are actually hiring, now have a much better pool of available talent from which to choose.

Whereas the problem prior to our current malady was one of not having enough "qualified" workers to do the work on hand, the current situation finds the opposite situation. If you can get, or have, a project now and are looking for help, the pickings are good. The marginal and "barely there" workers have fallen by the wayside, left the trades and, as I write this, are probably saying, "You want fries with that?" The pool of manpower that is presently available is as good as its likely going to get anytime in the near future.

What I’m saying is, if you are still in business and are planning on staying that way, you would be well advised to start planning for the future by looking for and hiring the very best people you can find. Be choosy. Before, if a guy was breathing he was usually hired. Not so today. Right now the supply of well qualified journeymen and apprentices is high. If you are planning to ride this horse (the present economy) to the finish line, and can get the work, now is the time to fill your roster with first-string players.

As those who read my column know, I am an advocate of trade craft and of fidelity to the trades. The present situation will not last forever, so I challenge you; let’s make a little sunshine and take the opportunity to keep the best people that the trade has employed if we can.

I know it’s ugly out there. The only thing to do is to keep on keeping' on.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. 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].

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