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What’s in a title: technician vs. craftsman

Oct. 4, 2013
As an aside to this column, I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to share their opinion and given feedback on the manpower crisis series.

As an aside to this column, I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to share their opinion and given feedback on the manpower crisis series. Also, a shout out to all the tradesmen, business owners, suppliers and educators who have joined the chorus for effective change in our industry. Joining forces in a meaningful way will make us more effective in supporting our agenda. Change is good, positive change is better, effective change is better still.

What’s in a name?

Lately, just about everywhere, service people are being referred to as “techs.” Tech is short for technician. The textbook definition of technician is:

1)    Specialist in industrial techniques; somebody who is skilled in industrial techniques or the practical application of a science.

2)    Somebody highly skilled; somebody who has mastered an artistic, athletic or other specialized skill at a high level.

So, according to the newspeak, a tech is supposed to be a journeyman or a master, or more precisely a professional. What do you think? Is giving someone an updated title doing him, or the title, justice? Most people think in terms of technicians being lab denizens, scurrying around with white coats, clip boards and pocket protectors. Marginally, appliance repair people have been referring to themselves as technicians for years, probably because ‘service man’ was not descriptive enough and saying the ‘appliance repairman will be there at…’ was too cumbersome.

Times change, it is true, but not everything changes for the better. Tacking a new name on a time honored title is nothing if not confusing. What is the difference between a journeyman, a master and a tech? Well, it depends upon who we are talking about.

A world of difference… not

According to the textbook definition, a tech is supposed to be a master at his chosen field.  So what about a craftsman? The textbook definition is:

1)    Somebody who makes things by hand; somebody who makes practical objects skillfully by hand.

2)    Skillful person; somebody who does something with great skill and expertise.

Which is more correct when applied to our trade? If you look at the two definitions, it is obvious that both are correct. In fact, using both definitions we could coin a new title, “tech-craftsman.”

The issue here is not what to call someone, it is what does the person holding the title do to fill the role. In the marketplace today, most companies call their people techs; not servicemen, not plumbers, not journeymen, not HVAC specialists…just techs. According to our definitions, one could expect a highly skilled journeyman to arrive at his or her doorstep, fully capable of handling any problem within the scope of their chosen profession. The reality is quite different.

As an example, a person can be trained to handle drain cleaning equipment, but how much about drainage, waste and vent systems are they taught? Without a working knowledge of the inherent characteristics of such systems, how can someone be considered a tech? You’ve seen it before, a drain cleaning service person runs a large bore rodding machine line down into a vent to clear a stoppage and ends up popping out in the client’s kitchen or laundry room because they did not understand how the vent was tied in to the drain line.

Yes, these things can be effectively taught. At some point, though, that tech is going to go outside his knowledge base. The question becomes, how much of an investment are businesses going to make in training these techs for narrowly defined job descriptions? At what point does the return on investment become untenable?

A true tech-craftsman has a broad, almost encyclopedic, trade knowledge and of how things work. He is not confined to a narrow job description. Believe me, the guy who puts in that system from the underground up knows how it works…and why. Advocating TOTAL trade education, as opposed to small slices of a trade education to fit a niche or boutique business is one answer to the problem of sending out poorly trained or inadequately trained people into the marketplace.

Commerce being what it is these days; we can’t expect franchisers and franchisees to demand highly experienced people to run and/or employ such personnel. If we did, there would be a lot fewer businesses competing for the consumer dollars, and considerably fewer franchise operations out there. So we watch as our already depleted manpower situation is diluted further by people who have no serious knowledge of, or investment in, our trade but who have the wherewithal to start a business and hire low quality techs to service their customer base.

Trying to get the consumer to understand the difference doesn’t help much either. With the advent of Home Depot, Lowes and other large retailers, the do-it-yourself market has exploded, with new products debuting almost daily. They make our jobs so easy anybody with a modicum of manual talent can make something (emphasis on something) work. 

The only thing that can even begin to compete with these issues is pride. Pride in the trade, pride in skill and personal pride in learning and working in an industry that has a long, glorious history. It might not be enough, but it’s all we’ve got.

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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