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Contractormag 2331 Tradecraft

Are you a craftsman or specialist?

April 6, 2015
Here are two definitions to become familiar with: Craftsman — [Noun] (2); somebody who does something with great skill and expertise. Specialist — [Noun] (1); somebody who specializes in an occupation, interest or field of study.

Recently, reading through some trade publications, I came across a couple of articles that had to do with the labor force in the trades written by two people with diametrically opposed approaches and viewpoints on the matter. They got me thinking about how the practice and training in our trade has evolved in relation to how the business end of the trade has evolved. 

One article was written as an almost nostalgic paean to the great craftsman of years gone by. The writer spoke, fondly, of having been exposed to men of the “old school” — tradesmen who had the gift of their hands wedded to the gift of knowledge and expertise in their field, doing the job with panache and style. Watching and listening to these men was a treat to a young man just beginning to learn the trade, and training at the knee of these tradesmen was akin to a religious experience. The lessons learned by simply observing their expertise, still resonated with the author some 50 plus years further down the line.

Another article, written by a business consultant, extolled the virtues of compartmentalizing your workforce and keeping track of the different skills and achievements of the workforce on forms that quantified each man’s (person’s?) scope of knowledge on certain procedures. The ostensible purpose of this tracking was to select an employee for a specific job based upon his knowledge of the requirements of that specific project or service.

Have we gotten to the point that we have lost what trade craft is all about? Looking at the definitions at the beginning of this article, it is clear that the differences in approach to training and providing qualified and quality journeymen are being, or already have been, instituted to fill the needs of today’s marketplace at the expense of the trade. 

No longer are we helpers, apprentices, journeymen, masters, etc. Those titles seem to have lost their meaning.  Now we are “techs” or “specialists,” which connote exactly what? One can adopt the title of tech for just about any job. What does it mean? It denotes no level of training, experience or expertise in that job. It tells no one how well versed in the job the person is; how much experience he has in doing the work. Much to the detriment of the mechanical trades, we are losing the very things which have defined us throughout the centuries; trade craft.

Micro-managing skill levels

As an advocate of the “whole trade” approach to apprentice training, the idea of tracking an employee’s skillset by procedure struck me as very distasteful. Parsing the skills of each employee, based on snippets of trade craft specific to one facet or job seems to me to be terribly limiting. On the one hand, it is good to know that you have an employee who can install a particular piece of equipment, or who can do a certain job. But shouldn’t all of your “journeymen” be able to do the job?

While I am in total agreement that the current state of the trade, coupled with the lack of enough qualified people entering it, presents problems for contractors which are unique, I am equally concerned about the dilution of our training of trade and craftsmanship. Solutions to our woeful lack of new blood run the gamut from in-shop prefabbing to specializing trainees that do specific, but narrow, work in the trade.

Compartmentalizing trade craft is not the way to achieve well rounded, competent journeymen. There must be a concerted effort to teach trade knowledge and trade craft as a whole, not piecemeal.

Same ol’, same ol’

Looking back over the years at past columns I’ve written, as well as articles and columns written by many other industry people, it comes as no surprise that we are all saying the same thing in different ways. Sadly, the level of progress in solving our manpower issues is glacial.

There are many initiatives, led by the UA and the PHCC, that are trying to expose young people, returning military, women (a segment of the workforce woefully under-represented in our industry) and others in that demographic to the trades. Without the political and industrial will to pursue the issue the efforts are flagging.

Industry leaders like Dave Garlow of Viega, North America have expressed their support of any kind of training initiative, and are ready to back that support up. Nexstar, too, offers scholarships as well as their “Troops to Trades” programs. That program is designed to encourage returning military members to get into the trades.  What better prospects could there be than young people who have served our country and know about personal discipline and personal responsibility?

With all of these programs, we are still struggling. Our industry is at risk of losing that which is most dear, the trade itself. While the answer might be elusive, we must find it. The alternative is not very appealing.

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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