The title of this article is homage to Yogi Berra, the eminently quotable master of the malaprop and superb catcher for the New York Yankees during their most illustrious seasons. No matter the regard you may hold the team; Yogi was a stand-alone great guy. Even though his often quoted comment seems to be redundant, it has a certain quality that resonates. You just knew what he meant, even if he didn't say it quite right.
The plumbing/mechanical/HVAC industry has always been subject to the whims of the economy. In good times everybody is a plumber, or an A/C guy or a heating expert. The market gets flooded with people who, for the most part, know just enough of the trade to be believable to John Q. Public. When they scam people, do substandard work, fly by night and are generally unreliable, who gets the black eye? That's right, the entire trade!
When the economy is bad, as it has been for the past few years, the situation doesn't get much better. People are looking to save a buck, and if they think they can do that by hiring “a friend of a cousin” who will work for cash “off-the-books,” they won't hesitate. The only saving grace in that scenario is that the customer recognizes his mistake and doesn't paint the whole trade with the same brush. Not much comfort there.
Trying to earn and maintain a good reputation for you and your company is getting more and more difficult in these times of poor economic growth and increased competition. What has really changed since the last big economic downturn in the 1970’s, is the business itself.
Technology is providing more and more cutting edge products, and the services that go along with them, at a frightening pace. A trade shop today has to be more nimble and flexible than ever before when selling and performing our jobs. More importantly, a shop today has to have the people versed in the trade, versed in sales and well versed in the products that they are either selling or installing. That is true if you are a service shop or a commercial/industrial operation. There is where the sand gets in the gears. People.
So is it really déjà vu?
Have we ever had such times in the trade before? I can't remember any if we did. The extreme lack of available candidates for new hires and the current lack of really well trained journeymen are creating a perfect storm for our industry that must be addressed, and it is past time that we do so.
If the business climate is going well, you've got to work harder than the competition to try and sell yourself and your company. While it is true that you can be more selective about the work you take on when times are good, you still need to stand out from the crowd. If you can't get decent people to work either with or for you, you are limited to what you can do no matter how well you present your company. As such, the lack of available labor is a big limiting factor in today's down marketplace.
True story: A master plumber, who I know quite well, recently told me that he no longer even looks at work that requires more than a plumber, and maybe a day laborer. His attempts at hiring entry level people have proven disastrous, and there aren't any even marginally qualified low time apprentices. I'm paraphrasing, but his comments went something like this, “I can't get a young person, these 'millennials' they call themselves, who want to work for even a few days, let alone stay and learn the trade. The story I hear, without exception, is that the work is too hard and they don't want to do it. More than that; even though I pay a good start rate, they think they are worth more than that after a few days. It's just insane. Doesn't anyone want to work anymore?” This, in one of the most dynamic markets in the nation today, with an excellent pool of people to draw from.
The thing is, the government statisticians say that a large number of people have left the workforce and given up looking for jobs. What's up with that? This situation is definitely not déjà vu.
Trade groups like the PHCC, the UA and even popular television “hard work is good” cheerleader Mike Rowe are beating the drums trying to convince high schools and junior colleges to revitalize the vocational education system that has largely been dismantled. The déjà vu that we need to counter today, all over again, is the stigmatizing of trade craft as undesirable professions. When a welder in North Dakota can make $75.00 an hour and a four year college graduate with a degree in (fill in the blank) studies is fighting for $15.00 an hour for flipping burgers, the inmates have truly taken over the asylum.
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].