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HELP! And what you can do about it

March 6, 2013
One topic that is near and dear to me is trade craft and passing the skills of the trade down to the next generation.

One topic that is near and dear to me is trade craft and passing the skills of the trade down to the next generation. As a third generation master, pride in trade is something that was drilled into me since about the age of six or so. We’ve done several columns discussing the dilution of trade craft in the pipe trades and construction trades in general. Other than complaining and lamenting the loss, there has been no serious follow up.

The construction labor situation in this country is reaching critical mass. We are rushing headlong into a pile-up of enormous scope and only a very few people seem to be trying to do something about the problem. Simply put, there are not nearly enough people coming in to the pipeline (of trade craft) to replace those gray beards that are retiring. Those that are entering the trades are not being given the education and tools required to sustain their careers, and so tend to fall away at the first opportunity.

The time is long past for beating around the bush and modifying verbiage to couch the problem in generic terms. Hopefully, with my editor’s approval, I will do my part and be able to dissect, discuss and direct the conversation in the right direction. The industry needs to understand the magnitude of the coming disaster and do the hard things that need to be done in order to avert it. So, let’s begin…

Historically, in this country, we tend to go along a path and continue until an event so enormous occurs that we are forced to change our direction. Things like World War I, The Great Depression and World War II are examples of what I’m talking about. Prior to The Depression, World War I shook America and brought large, rural groups of people from the heartland into both the cities and abroad in Europe. What this did was to expose the populace (mostly the men, but women as well) to new ways of thinking and living. The song “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on The Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree” is indicative of this transformation.  A plowboy from Indiana might not be so eager to return to that life once he has been to either the big city or the continent.

Then came The Depression, which so rocked our national psyche that, to this day, the people that lived through it still bear the scars in idiosyncratic behaviors, which those of us who did not experience the event find amusing (i.e., washing out and saving Zip Loc bags).

World War II dragged us out of The Depression, but also brought us squarely into the 20th century and the shift from rural farmsteads to city dwelling became significant. As the population shifted, first for the war effort and then for peacetime employment, the complexion of the nation changed once again.  Technology, driven by the war footing, began to drive the national economy. Affordable housing, such as the Levittown developments, for returning veterans made the “American Dream” a reality for many. The demand for autos, labor saving appliances, and new inventions like the ubiquitous television were bolstered by a populace that had been through a World War, won it and now wanted to experience the Utopia that they were sure would be theirs.

Everything seemed possible during the 1950s, and the golden age of America commenced. During that era, a trade career was something to be proud of and aspired to. Many high schools had vocational curricula which was the entry point into the trades for many young men of that era. If he had the affinity and ability, a young man was often referred to a trade shop for part time work and then given a full-time job after graduation. Many stayed with the same shop for their entire careers, some as long as 35 years, and more!

Going to college was not something many middle class students aspired to for any number of reasons, and the education system understood that. The rise of “Voc-Ed” as it was called was an answer to the needs of a nation bursting with enthusiasm for the future and the marketplace. Tradesmen were needed to build the houses and commercial/industrial buildings required to fuel the expansion of the American economy. Wages were commensurate with the skill level of the particular trade and the economic benefits of a good paying, steady job further fueled the national economy.

So here we are today.  We’re in an economic malaise and the national mood is grim. The trades are suffering from a dearth of available manpower and very, very few people in a position of power are even aware of the situation, let alone trying to do something about it. We need to do it ourselves, just like we’ve always done. Relying on the invisible “powers that be” just won’t cut it.  Next month, Part 2 of this column, will go there.

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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