Reading through CONTRACTOR’s January issue, a general “theme” presented itself. Most of the columns dealing with the current and future state of the trades concerned itself with manpower. That is, the lack of available manpower moving forward, how to engage the labor force (millennials), what can be done to increase and improve interest in the trades as a choice of vocations, and so on.
While no consensus was arrived at, it is very clear that our biggest challenge for this brand new century is finding, attracting and training fresh talent into the construction trades. The fact that the trades are the backbone of the national economy seems to be lost on most of the commentary outside our industry. While I do not doubt that new technological breakthroughs and industries will come to the forefront of our economy, the buildings, factories and infrastructure that these industries will require need competent and available construction trades professional to build them.
I can think of no greater waste of time and money than to have a new hire be “book smart” only to find out that they do not have the requisite ability to put textbook information into practical application.
Most of the pieces are dealing with the “macro” hiring environment. Let us assume that you have been able to hire, and are training, some new apprentices. In addition to targeting general tradecraft and all that it entails, you are teaching your new people about the technology advancements in our industry. In addition to basics such as drainage, waste and vent systems, potable water systems, gas and fuel systems, your new hires need to be versed in the “electronics revolution” as it relates to energy efficiency systems, water heating, cooling and heating systems and the many other products that have moved into the “wireless” arena.
While all of the above will keep your people quite busy, don’t lose sight of, or place less importance on, manual skills. I’m talking about the “micro” hiring environment. Above all, the ability to work with one’s hands is the bread and butter of the trades. The United Association and National Assocation —Plumbing Heating Cooling Contractors (PHCC) place manual skills near the top of their training programs, and rightly so. While understanding how things work, and why they do, is important, it does no good if the apprentice does not have the manual dexterity and training to properly install the systems he has learned about. Book learning can only take one so far. At some point the trainee needs to exhibit some talent for actually doing the work.
I can think of no greater waste of time and money than to have a new hire be “book smart” only to find out that they do not have the requisite ability to put textbook information into practical application. With the difficulty our industry now has in attracting entry level personnel, it is more imperative than ever to find and nurture people who have a good manual skill set. These prospects are out there, but it requires a keen eye to spot them. On the base level for most small shops, looking for people like the one below is a good way to bring people into the trade with a higher than average success rate.
I know a young man who is decidedly not “bookish” and when he graduated high school, had no particular direction. He did not exude technical aptitude. He got jobs at the local home stores like Home Depot and Lowes in various capacities. Because he is not particularly outgoing or personable, he was not well thought of by his peers and supervisors. He was called “dumb” and “slow” and was generally treated poorly. The idea of trying to enter the trades never crossed his mind.
A plumbing contractor friend had occasion to interact with the young man on a few occasions while shopping. He noted that the young man had worked in several departments of the store, and each time the contractor came across the guy, no matter which department he was working in, he had intimate knowledge of the products, their locations and useful applications.
Cutting to the chase, my friend hired the young man as an apprentice. This is his assessment: “He shows up for work every day, on time. He does whatever is asked of him with no complaint, and he is like a sponge. Everything, and I mean everything, he is taught he retains. His manual skills improve daily and (this is most important) he always wants to know “what comes next.” He is taking code classes at the local community college now.”
This story is not an isolated situation. People such as the young man described above are out there. If finding them one at a time seems daunting, it is. What’s the alternative? Hiring people en masse and seeing who’s left after the dust clears? While we are decrying the very real lack of available manpower, and are trying to close the gap, let’s not lose sight of the opportunities available to us by evaluating the young people we meet daily. By looking at the macro hiring environment as a whole, we should not overlook the micro environment and the very real opportunities to engage prospective hires on an individual level.
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].