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Tradecraft language is a common basis

May 7, 2015
The trade skills, and the language it entails, are learned as we grow from apprentice to journeyman to foreman to master.  These skills need to be kept in good standing, even as we progress from ‘working with the tools’ to working in the office. Our trade skills are the one thing we all have in common. They are the lingua franca that we all speak.
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What is the one thing all plumbing/mechanical journeymen have in common? It is their knowledge of trade skills and the language of the industry we all belong to.

While we’ve been commenting on the lack of trade growth and the seeming inability of the industry to draw in enough new apprentices, there hasn’t been much said about the skill levels, verbal or mechanical, of our existing workforce.

The trade skills, and the language it entails, are learned as we grow from apprentice to journeyman to foreman to master, and these skills need to be kept in good standing, even as we progress from ‘working with the tools’ to working in the office, as a field supervisor or other “white collar” facet of the trade.

This is not to say that the CEO of a large plumbing or mechanical company needs to put on his tool belt every now and then. Nor that an office bound journeyman should take a break and go back to the field for a bit (although that is not always a bad idea).

What I’m getting at is this; our trade skills are the one thing we all have in common. They are the lingua franca that we all speak, or have spoken, at one time or another. When a foreman gives a journeyman or apprentice a job to do, he can be explicit in his directions because everyone knows what everyone else is talking about.

Likewise, an owner or field supervisor knows he can effectively communicate, one would hope; with all of his people when discussing the job at hand in trade terms.

It’s all Greek to me

As an example, some years ago while waiting in a customers’ office, I picked up a trade magazine for the plastics industry. It was quite instructional to me because I couldn’t understand anything written except the adjectives and verbs. It was as if the magazine was written in Sanskrit. Try as I might, I was unable to find one single article that I could make anything out of. Why? Because I was not intimately involved in the plastics manufacturing trade.

The same thing would hold true, in most instances, of someone trying to understand directions from a foreman or supervisor of a plumbing/mechanical shop if that person didn’t have a working knowledge of the trade.

It is, therefore, extremely important to properly and accurately teach the trade, the skills and the correct descriptive language of that trade from the very beginning, consistently. Apprentices, who begin their training in vocational schools, or in programs such as run by the UA or PHCC, are at a distinct advantage when learning these skills but not an insurmountable one.

Not many shops outside those programs have printed materials or books (except, possibly, Code books) about the trade that new hires can access, which is a shame. Even code books have primers, which explain the contents to anyone who has the desire to learn.

Evaluating personnel

Evaluating new hires, of any degree, should naturally entail a brief but comprehensive conversation with the person doing the interview to determine the level of trade knowledge that new hire has. It does no good at all to hire someone who claims to be a journeyman that doesn’t know what the acronym “DWV” stands for, or who can’t intelligently describe their work experience using trade language.

Existing employees, too, need to be able to use trade craft and its language accurately. Whether they are old hands or green apprentices, their use of it must be clear, and understood by everyone. New products, procedures, and their names, need to be universally accepted by your employees.

Maybe not everyone in your company is articulate, well read or able to express themselves as clearly as you would, but at the base level, there should always be trade language to fall back on.

The education thing

As mentioned above, few shops offer reference books for employee use. This is a shortcoming that needs to be addressed if we are to elevate the level of trade craft in our industry. Books are fairly expensive, and some people are not very gentle when using them, so perhaps having an online library might work better.

I’ve noted, with some dismay that fewer and fewer young people seem to want to read anymore. The solution might be interactive programs that challenge the new paradigm of learning the trade. I don’t know. Code books were something my company gave to each new journeyman when they were sent out on jobs alone or with an apprentice for the first time. Not a big deal, but a small acknowledgement of their “arrival” at a new level within the organization. Whatever the means or method, talking the talk is as important as doing the work when all is said and done. 

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].

About the Author

Al Schwartz | Founder

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.

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