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Exception or Exceptional?

March 25, 2021
Is our trade headed for the “ash heap of history” after serving civilization since the beginning?

In a recent issue of CONTRACTOR, there was an article about some new production paradigms and integrated digital programs working toward streamlining field production even more than it is now. Within that article there was an interview with an “expert” who opined something to the effect that, in the future, fully trained field journeymen would be the exception, and that partially trained assembly workers would do the heavy lifting for our trade. I am being deliberately vague as to the article and the guy who made that statement so as to avoid and backlash, if there was to be any.

That statement, and how “expert” that expert was, remains to be seen, but it brings up a point worth discussing or at least writing about. Everyone has a little piece of turf that they will fight to protect, and I am sure that the guy who made that statement was staking out his, however wrong-headed I think his opinion is.

The question here is our trade headed for the “ash heap of history” after serving civilization since the beginning? Will technology do to the plumbing/pipefitting trade what the discovery of underground petroleum did to the whalers of yesteryear—i.e. make it irrelevant? It seems to be the prevailing opinion of some in our industry.

As this column has noted for years, our trade is in serious trouble as regards new hires. It is a combination of the “you have to go to college to get a good job” parenting, societal thinking, and the lack of serious work ethic that today’s young people seem to have which has put us in this position.

Notwithstanding the efforts of people like Humberto Martinez of Construction Career Days or Douglas Green and his “New Collar Jobs” initiative, the effort to fill the ranks of the retiring graybeards in the trade has not borne fruit. Although there are many new programs that have jumped in to fill the gap, in my humble opinion, it may be too little...too late.

The woeful lack of effort on the part of our various governments in addressing the education system’s failure to re-institute vocational education programs—and to take seriously the lack of qualified trainees in the critical trades—hasn’t helped either. Nobody seems to correlate the need for a tradesman with training until the problem smacks them in the face. All of that leads to people like our “expert” above referenced proclaiming that the journeyman who is expert at the whole trade is on life support.

Even as I write this, there are virtual digital programs being brought online that connect potential customers with experts in the critical trades (plumbing, HVAC and electrical) for either DIY with virtual expert help online, or to get professionals into homes to effect repairs after the diagnostics have been done online.

Even within that milieu there is disagreement as to who will be able to properly service the clients. A fully trained and experienced journeyman in any of those critical trades is becoming harder to find. To be sure, there are “techs” who can do one or two facets of the whole trade, but a fully trained journeyman who can properly diagnose a problem virtually by just listening to the customer and viewing the problem through the customers’ smart phone in real time? Scarce as hen’s teeth.

The fact that us old graybeards are either retiring or dying without passing our accumulated knowledge on to the younger generation of craftsmen does not seem to raise alarm bells either. More is the pity.

To well, and fully, train someone to become a journeyman in any of the trades above referenced requires a dedication on the part of the trainee as well as the master to whom he (or she) is apprenticed. The training requires years of hands-on experience in not only use of tools and materials but of education in the various systems and equipment that encompass the particular trade being learned.

It does not require such a level of dedication if all you are required to learn is how to build back-to-back bathroom DWV stacks in a factory setting. Nor does that person who builds those stacks have any idea of how they are installed or what they do.

That lack of understanding translates to poor quality control and problems that the factory worker does not know about or understand. That issue is not addressed in the article either.

Let’s leave the factory setting for a moment and look further downstream in the equation. Let’s say we’ve arrived at the stage where all of the prefabbed parts have been installed, fixtures set, and now the homeowner has a problem with one thing or another. Who gets to do the service? Certainly not the guy who built the modules.

So now you have a poorly, or inadequately, trained “service tech” who gets to go and troubleshoot a system, part or fixture. The specific knowledge required to work on a known system is fine, but narrow.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that someone who has been factory trained to work on a specific assembly will be severely limited once outside that known quantity. Take it a step further and say that the person who services the construction that was prefabbed goes out and tries to work on systems and/or buildings without the luxury of knowing exactly where each fitting is or each clean out is, etc. That will probably not end well for either the tech or the customer.

All of this begs the question, will our future plumbers, HVAC and electricians be limited in trade knowledge to only a specific area and the ranks of fully trained journeymen be the exception? Or will we, again, see the wisdom in proper “whole trade” training to turn out exceptional craftsmen? I don’t know the answer... do you?

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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