What about prospective trainees?

Aug. 1, 2013
Disclaimer:  This column is opinion. It is interesting to note that, for the past five months or so, this column has been about the manpower crisis that we are facing in the trades.

Disclaimer:  This column is opinion. It is interesting to note that, for the past five months or so, this column has been about the manpower crisis that we are facing in the trades. All of the previous columns dealt with the problem from the perspective of what we need to do, and what is being done, in order to get ‘bodies’ into the trades; to train, motivate and educate people about the opportunities available to them as trade craftsmen (and women). What this column did not delve into deeply is the actual labor force that is out there today.

A recent article in a trade magazine featured a column by, I assume, an academic or MBA (from the concept of the article to his credentials, he was not a working tradesman) who took great pains to inform his readers about the workforce that is presently available to the trades, and how to attract those people. I must admit, that after reading the article, I was not very sanguine about the prospects for our continued survival as a craft.

According to the piece, today’s workers want to work in a “friendly” environment where they can “interact” with others in their “peer group” as well as exchange ideas with management and be complimented on their achievements. These new employees need to feel “empowered” and be given “options” so they can have “input”…all the while singing Kumbaya, I would assume. What a load of hooey! 

After reading the article I needed to wash my hands! At the risk of being impolitic and unapologetically non-politically correct; what businessperson, today, wants to hire people whose personal “self-esteem” is more important to them than doing the job for which they were hired? Talk about the tail wagging the dog! That type of employment strategy might work if we were talking about a business (more appropriately a government agency) that is less concerned with making a profit than it is with propagating bureaucracy and inefficiency, but it certainly won’t work for a tradesman.

First, the trades are not a consensus building endeavor. When one takes on the charge of learning a craft, he or she takes on all aspects of that craft. Individuality is the hallmark of a trade craftsman. When an apprentice becomes a journeyman it means something. It means that he or she has progressed through the various requirements to become an individual craftsman. While it is true that there is some flexibility in many aspects of our work (I believe the phrase “more than one way to skin a cat” is appropriate), the overarching directive is that the job gets done…the right way, and in the right time frame; self-esteem notwithstanding.

Second, unless we have all been in a time warp, when you hire someone to learn the trade, you don’t hire them to build a consensus with their “peers” as to whether or not your directions and instructions meet “their” idea of “fair and balanced.” Nor are we, as master craftsmen, obligated to “discuss” a particular issue with our apprentices. It is something that, quite simply, is beyond the pale. When an apprentice signs on to learn the trade, they sign on to “learn the trade” not to decide which parts of it fit their lifestyle or which parts of the trade they like or don’t like!

The mechanical trades have never, and I hope never will be, about political correctness or what feels good. They are about a skill set that sets you apart. They are about smart. They are about manual labor, manual skills and doing the right job, the right way. They are about knowing your field of endeavor inside and out and doing the work with pride and integrity. The trades produce (or did) some of the most versatile, mentally agile, adept and skilled craftsmen this nation has ever seen. They are the people who, in the words of a good friend and master plumber, “can do everything with practically nothing” when the situation demands.

Training people to think on their feet and to get the job done, the right way, with whatever comes to hand is what teaching the craft is all about. While I don’t advocate being mean or cruel to your apprentices, neither do I believe that adopting the current “feel good” approach to establishing “self-esteem” and having group discussions and working by “consensus” is a viable solution to our problem. If, according to the article I read,  adapting to the current method of recruiting is the wave of the future, we as a trade are in serious trouble; even more so than the lack of manpower.

We need to find people that “want” to learn the trades. We need to teach the trades the only way a discipline such as ours can be taught; the right way. We deal, after all, in absolutes.  Pressure is pressure; temperature is temperature; gravity is gravity; solids, liquids and gasses act a certain way…these things, along with the ability to utilize the proper materials, equipment and to make or follow plans is what knowing the trade is about. That, and having the skill set to get the jobs done too. Worrying about political correctness is what is partially responsible for getting us in the place that we find ourselves. Let us not cling too tightly to that idea now.

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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