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Where is the Trade Headed?

March 12, 2020
The road to financial ruin is littered with the carcasses of those who thought the next new thing would be their ticket to success.
Last month I shared a brief story of our venerable trade, from the dawn of recorded history to the present. Here we are into the 21st century. Society in general, and the trade in particular, is in a state of flux. The introduction and development of the digital milieu and all that it entails has thrown our nice, orderly evolution into a spin.

If you’ve read some of my other columns, you might think I am anti-progress at best and anti-digital anything at worst. Not true. There is a place in the trades for the kind of advancement that the digital revolution brings, but that place should be clearly demarcated, especially when it comes to trade skills and training.

In the February 2020 issue of Contractor, writer Jenn Said’s article on Chatbots begins with “Slow to adapt to change, the construction industry isn’t typically at the forefront of pioneering new technologies.” That sentence pretty much sums up my experience in the 60 or so years I’ve been in the trades. The trade has always been slow to adapt to “new” things. I say that it is a good thing.

When you have the responsibility of putting out a product that you will have to stand behind, and that will stand the test of time, jumping on the bandwagon of every new product or system that comes along is, perhaps, not the best course.

The road to financial ruin, for many good plumbing companies, is littered with the carcasses of those who thought the next new thing would be their ticket to success. In years past products like the polysulfone solar water heating panels that were “laboratory tested’ to last for 30 years, but which lasted about 30 months in the Arizona sun, or polybutylene pipe (good idea) and fittings (not a good idea) that would stand against the hard water in the desert southwest are but two of the many ideas that came, and went, and took more than a few contractors with them.

It’s one thing for the front office to digitize their operations with things like AI and now “chatbots” (“Alexa, what’s the P&L on the Honeywell project?”) but it is quite another to extend such innovations to the field. That presents an entirely new and different paradigm that does not seem to be considered. What I am seeing is an exponential expansion on computing ability and digitization that makes being in business easier and more efficient. What I am not seeing is the interface with the tradesmen.

It’s all well and good to have voluminous data files at your fingertips. To be able to accurately order material, forecast profit, schedule job production details and so forth, but where does it help Frank the journeyman be a better craftsman?

It seems, to me at least, that all of this new and cutting-edge technology and computing power, programs, AI operated scheduling, chatbots and such presuppose that the field will seamlessly integrate.

Reading through a lot of the trade magazines, the stories are remarkably similar. It is clear that the issue of field performance, i.e., trade craft, is assumed. No one seems to make the connection that you can have all of the chatbots and AI’s there are but, lacking the personnel with the skills required to implement the actual work, it is all for nothing.

President Trump in his state of the union address prescribed returning vocational education to our schools. Previously, his secretary of labor announced something similar a year or two ago. That is an admirable goal, but is it too little, too late? The current state of skilled manpower in the U.S. is abysmal.

Every—and I mean every—plumbing contractor I talk with says the same thing, “we can’t find good help.” Of course they can’t. For the past thirty or forty years, the idea that every kid must go to college or be relegated to (gasp!) working with their hands has been the mantra of those in government and the media and the parents who bought into it.

The upshot of that shortsighted thinking is the crisis we now find ourselves in. We, in the mechanical trades, are skilled craftsmen. Our skill sets are not learned on a computer or in a few months of “trade school.” They are learned, honed and sharpened over several (or more) years of hands on, daily practice in actual field conditions, not laboratories. Why can’t the powers that be understand that?

Then, too, there is the current crop of young people who seem to have lost not only the desire to learn a trade, but to work at all! This situation will resolve itself, one way or another in the very near future. No one is going to save the skilled trades but the trades themselves. In the case of the U.S., competition from other countries that still have the work ethic, the desire to learn trades and the people who want to learn them will fill the void left by our neglect.

I can envision new visa categories for skilled tradesmen being issued to fill the ranks of our empty apprenticeship and journeymen categories as, at least, a stopgap measure to prevent a total collapse of our trades.

So, what is my answer to the question posed in the title of this article? I don’t know! I used to think that the skills, technical abilities and work ethic of American craftsmen would always be available, but they are not—at least not in numbers large enough to make a difference. Prove me wrong! Please! Satchel Page, the veteran baseballer of bygone years once famously said, “Don’t turn around, someone might be gaining on you!” Well, we had better turn around and see who, or what, it is... and do something about it!

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a 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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