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What’s in a name?

July 9, 2010
In many articles that I've read lately in trade magazines, "plumbers" are referred to as "techs" or "technicians." Now, I am completely aware of the tendency toward political correctness in our society at large and the trend toward "specialization" in all sorts of jobs, but techs or technicians? Really?

In many articles that I've read lately in trade magazines, "plumbers" are referred to as "techs" or "technicians." Now, I am completely aware of the tendency toward political correctness in our society at large and the trend toward "specialization" in all sorts of jobs, but techs or technicians? Really?

It is absolutely amazing to this author to note the direction that our trade has taken. If you've followed my column for any length of time, you know that I'm a firm believer in carrying on the skills and traditions of our craft while incorporating new advances in both technology and materials. The concept of compartmentalizing the knowledge and skills of the trade into various sub-sets is completely alien to that philosophy.

The trade has always had craftsmen and plumbing businesses that chose to concentrate on one aspect of the industry or another: commercial, industrial, residential, service, repair and remodel are the most generally recognized. Does working more in one facet or another mean that the craftsman or the shop is not versed in the other aspects? I used to think not, but I’m not so sure any more.

The trade has, until recently, always been taught as a whole. By that I mean the apprentice was versed in every aspect of the trade from the ground (or underground) up. Most apprentices that I've taught or worked with were required to know all phases of the trade, not just some. Materials and technology may change, but the knowledge of the interconnectedness of plumbing systems and their relationships to each other were always the bedrock of the apprentice's education.

An example: understanding the concept of slope in drainage, waste and vent piping (learning how to properly grade a trench was usually the first thing an apprentice learned how to do) starting at the underground level (sewers or septic systems included) and ending at the termination of the stack vent through the roof, or the concept of water distribution from the well or city water connection, to include cross connection and backflow. Likewise, pressure and volume calculations, in both water and gases (important for sizing the piping), was something every apprentice was taught.

Service work, when it was taught, was always taught with these principles in mind. Rodding (or drain cleaning) was, quite simply, an adjunct to the DWV system that the apprentice was trained in. Faucet repair, potable water and gas system alterations, repair and other such service related issues were nothing more than smaller pieces of the same systemic pies. Learning how to affect repairs without damaging, or minimizing the impact on either the existing cabinetry, tile or other structural parts was, and is, something the individual tradesman needed to learn as well.

The point I am trying to make is that, when the apprentice had completed his apprenticeship and assumed the mantle of a journeyman, he was truly a complete plumber in the best sense of that word. The newly minted journeyman should be capable of doing any work that falls within the scope of the trade, or at the very least have a working knowledge of what needs to be done.

All of which brings me back to the term "techs." In more than one case it has been apparent that many of these techs have been trained to do one, two or a few things related to a very narrow aspect of the trade. They are not vested, or invested, in the trade as a whole, but are trained in small pieces of the larger whole. In a few cases, I've had the opportunity to chat with techs either at supply house counters or on the job. The impression that I came away with each and every time was one of an eager young man whose entire view of plumbing was through a very narrow porthole.

I suppose that with the advancements in space-age materials, micro technology and the like, it is getting easier and easier to minimize the plumbing trade into smaller and smaller chapters. After all, how many plumbers out there today can wipe a lead bend or work with sheet lead to make a shower pan? Few to be sure since there is no longer a need for such skills. So it's not really surprising then that the trade is being fragmented the way it is.

Remember the old gas station/repair shops? They had mechanics that could fix anything that you might need fixed on your car. Today, due to the increasingly advanced technology used in auto manufacturing, these shops are almost a thing of the past and specialty shops have taken their place. The question is will the plumbing trade go the same way? Will plumbers all become techs?

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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