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Filling the Ranks

June 22, 2021
The issue at hand is the almost total lack of available, qualified people entering the trades.

My April column generated more reader responses than any column I have written in the past 14 years. Sometimes, when a topic is particularly near and dear, it is difficult to believe just how homogeneous your point of view might be with your audience. Such is the case with my comments on the state of new blood entering our venerable trade.

Now, to be clear, I am speaking specifically of the plumbing/pipefitting trade in this case. While I mean no disrespect to HVAC, that trade does not have the long history that the plumbing trades do, and, after all, I am a master plumber.

While the hunt for qualified new hires crosses all boundaries of our industry, my point in the April column is the “grave dancing” that I noted in a couple of articles predicting the demise of our craft... or at least the fully trained journeyman portion of it.

The reader responses that I received came from men that I will collectively refer to as “graybeards,” those craftsmen of a certain age who have climbed the ladder from apprentice to businessman (some all the way to retiree) and all stages in-between—all weighed in on the subject. Perhaps it is unremarkable that they, and I, all have similar opinions on the cause of the current crisis. It is even less remarkable that not one of us has a definitive answer as to how to correct and reverse the trends.

The issue at hand is the almost total lack of available, qualifiedpeople entering the trades. Not just the plumbing trade, either. All facets of the construction industry are seeing this same situation. As I noted in my May column, that situation seems to be in a state of flux, with forward momentum finally being observed. The open-ended question was, is it too little, too late?

The situation is most definitely exacerbated by the societal pressures which have been applied, almost without restraint, for the past thirty to forty years. Specifically, “You need a college education to get a good job,” and, “You don’t want to be a plumber. It’s a dirty job,” etc.

The upshot of all that negative stereotyping is the present state of our labor pool. Going a step further, in the opinion of my readers, parenting today has come under scrutiny as well. I remember the “Why Johnny can’t read” issue back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It was a scandal that, at that time, children were being passed through school with “social” promotions so as not to stigmatize the poor little dears. Unfortunately, that lead to a significant number of children who went through high school and graduated, still unable to read.

The point being that, today, children are not only being socially promoted, but they are actually going through four years of higher education and not being challenged to perform in any meaningful way. Colleges and universities seem more enamored of tuition than actually educating their students. It is the considered consensus of the readers who responded to my column that there is an almost total lack of observable work ethic among the current generation of age eligible prospects.

Add to that lack the advent of spurious (the kindest word I could think of) “major” subject degrees like “lesbian dance theory,” “women’s studies” and other less than useless fields of study (yes, I said it!) and you have raised the term “slacker” to its own art form. While it may be cool or “woke” to pretend that such degrees matter, the reality is they don’t!

All of the preceding is empirically true. You don’t have to be a clinical researcher to know that we have a societal problem that is eroding the nation’s labor force. The “participation trophy” mentality that we have, as a nation, allowed to prevail has robbed our younger generation of the necessary ability to strive and achieve.

Our younger generations have been denied the opportunity to develop the abilities needed to compete with their global counterparts. On just about every level, American students rank lower than students from almost every developed nation, and even some third world nations! Yet very few people in a position to do anything about it seem to appreciate the fact. Further, the students themselves do not seem concerned with their lack.

The correspondence I received from the tradesmen who read my column was singularly unanimous on this subject. This lack of education and competitive spirit is alarming to those who remember the Apollo program and moon landing (only 52 years ago this July 20). The thrust of that effort had students applying themselves to the sciences (especially the new and upcoming computer sciences—can you say Steve Jobs and Bill Gates?) with a passion. Even those of us who were not math whizzes learned to how to use slide rules.

Fifty-two years from the pinnacle of academic achievement to college level degrees which can only prepare you for a job that starts with “You want fries with that?” All the while, solid, skilled trades with thousands of years of history go begging for people to train, because “Johnny” doesn’t care enough to get up for work more than a couple of days in a row, or can’t do simple mathematics.

As I wrote above, not one of the guys who wrote me, nor I, know what the answer is. We all wish we had one. But skirting around the real problem while casting about for someone or something else to blame hasn’t worked so far. Time for all of us to look, collectively in the proverbial mirror and face the fact that we have failed our progeny and we had better do something. Something real, tangible and concrete, soon. If we just keep kicking the problem down the road, we are going to find out sooner rather than later, that the road is a dead end.

Gentlemen, I wrote it like you said it. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and opinions.

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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