Keeping the trades alive

Sept. 5, 2012

Recent columns about trade craft, trade education and the new paradigm in businesses that purport to have “techs” as opposed to plumbers have garnered quite a few comments from readers of Contractor. In fact, the numbers of letters commenting on and lamenting the state of the trade were the most I’ve received on any columns.

Several comments on the education opportunities and the availability of training for apprentices pointedly agreed with the premise that our education system needed to be retooled, so to speak, to accommodate trade craft, and outlined several different scenarios that were being tried in different parts of the country. Interestingly, not one reader thought that the public school curricula were adequate for our future as a trade.

Private trade schools were deemed to be superior to what was, today at least, available in the public school systems. The hope was also expressed, almost universally, that public school curricula could be channeled into trade programs sooner rather than later. Most of the respondents also agreed that we are already in a precarious position as regards to manpower, and the ‘new blood’ needed to promote it.

One reader agreed with my assertion that a properly trained apprentice had a more concentrated education than just about any other field except medical doctors, but felt that continuing education had not been mentioned. He said that, in his opinion, the lack of continuing education in the trades was an issue that needed to be talked about. His thrust was that life-long learning is a habit that needs to be taught right along with trade craft if we are to produce high quality journeymen and carry the trade into the future. It should also be mentioned that the reader represented a family-run company of some long standing, so he should be in the position to know whereof he speaks. I wholeheartedly agree.

If a trade education is to have any value beyond the mechanical aspects of working with the tools, fostering a love of learning is an absolute must. Today’s apprentices are tomorrow’s journeymen and foremen. Without the appetite for learning new things, they will stagnate and so will the trade at large. When pride in the trade and the skills needed to properly work at it become a part of the credo of the work force, as opposed to simply a “job” then we are on the right track.

On “techs,” plumbers

Speaking of jobs, one reader was really hot about how plumbers were portrayed in the advertising media by some of the shops that now profess to have techs in lieu of fully trained plumbers. He lamented that the term “plumber” was applied to inept, dirty, smelly, sloppy guys while their “techs” were portrayed as neat, clean, efficient, friendly, kind, reverent, etc., etc.

One look at the political landscape of today can show you where that type of character assassination comes from. So what is the antidote to this type of portrayal? It seems obvious that the very point we are making is the answer. We can start by denigrating the tech name tag. That’s right; I don’t like my journeymen called techs. They are not techs, they are journeymen. If they take the title seriously then they are imbued with all the respect and credentials that such a name demands. Calling a person who knows a tenth or less of what a true journeyman knows is the holder of a “McJob,” not a tech.

Today, everything has to be technologically unique for it to sell. Look at the computer industry and what it has done to transform our world. Today’s hot product is supplanted by tomorrow’s even hotter one. There is at least one video online that spoofs that very fact. The fact of the matter is that the skill set we enjoy is unique to the trade in general and still very much relevant to our public. So when people see tech they automatically assume that the guy has to be better than a mere plumber, doesn’t he? We know that the answer is a resounding “No” and we need to make a concerted effort to make the public aware of that fact. Perhaps pointing out the short comings of a techs trade education and limitations, or lack thereof, might be a way to get people’s attention.

The real bottom line here is that, no matter what, we in the trades will have to be the ones to keep them alive and growing. We must take every opportunity to show the public what we bring to the table. No one else will. My thanks to all of you who wrote expressing your opinions. Your comments are most appreciated.

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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