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Tech and Trade Skills…Where Are We Going?

Feb. 10, 2022
It was not very long ago that the trades, pre-digital of course, were more reliant on personal skills and experience than on tech.

After reading about the AHR confab and all the new tech stuff coming to market, it is well to remember the time frame in which most of these innovations have taken place. It was not very long ago that the trades, pre-digital of course, were more reliant on personal skills and experience than on tech. While the technical paradigm is changing daily, we should not lose sight of what it takes to be a craftsman today… which is to say that things have not really changed at the base level.

American Plumber Stories

If you haven’t tuned in to watch any of “American Plumber Stories” ( short films produced by Pfister Company, you are missing really good stuff. The short videos are professionally done, complete with a catchy “bumper” song done by the host, army veteran and country artist Craig Morgan, and highlight the many facets of our trade from a lot of different angles.

We all know that the labor situation in the construction industry, across the board, is abysmal. What this series shows are vignettes of how we in the trade are addressing it, as well as highlighting some of the successful plumbing shops, and the plumbers who made them, across the country.

Personally, I enjoyed watching the shows that highlighted the high school kids and entry level apprentices. The enthusiasm is contagious but, more importantly, the comments regarding college after high school were enlightening. Listening to young people learning a trade talk about how, early on, they knew college was not for them, but working with their hands and building things was, really brings into sharp focus what the current “go to college to get a good job” narrative is missing.

Where did we go wrong?

Some of you readers are old enough to remember shop classes in high school. Those classes were the crucible that gave students a taste of what it is like to make something, and to work with one’s hands. Many a young person found out working with their hands and making something gave them a satisfaction that dry book learning did not. Moreover, many of those students, once exposed to manual skills, decided to go into the trades. Not for the money—although even back then the pay was above average even for apprentices—but because the trades held their interest and gave them something that fed their souls.

Somewhere between shop class and the digital revolution we made a wrong turn, and we are now seeing the result. By denigrating a trade career for the past fifty or so years, we have managed to stigmatize two generations of American youth. Of course, that is not the only reason we are finding it difficult to fill our depleted ranks, but it is a big one

More than once, during the two seasons of American Plumbers Stories, the old cliché description of a plumber is trotted out: big fat guy with his butt crack hanging out, makes a mess in your house, doesn’t really fix things and charges too much. Fortunately, those referencing that old cliché are doing so in a way that dispels it by pointing out its fallacy.

Tech VS Trade Skills

It is great to see how the digital revolution has made a difficult, physically demanding trade, easier. Add to that the enhanced ability of today’s service plumber to diagnose problems that heretofore had been difficult, if not impossible, to do without a lot of extra destruction of floors and walls. The advent of affordable tech like sewer cameras and sonar to locate underground or hidden piping, and the problems that come with them, has been a huge leap forward.

While that and other tech improvements have made the job easier, the work itself has not changed much. Skills are still required to effect repairs once the problem has been located. The tradesman still must know how to do the job and must have the requisite skills to do it in what my dad used to call a “workmanlike manner.”

What it Takes

This magazine has a feature which highlights some of the most atrocious plumbing work I have ever seen… and I have seen a lot of atrocious plumbing work! For the most part, the work is done by the homeowner or a handyman, but some of it is done by what we might marginally call a plumber.

These disasters point up the fact that trade skills, properly taught over a five-year apprenticeship, are an invaluable part of the future of the craft. Think about that last sentence for a moment if you will. “A five-year apprenticeship.” What career today requires that much training? Doctors and lawyers, yes. I’ll allow that structural engineers and architects have long apprenticeships too, but few have the intensive immersion that the plumbing trade does.

A five-year apprenticeship means that, for at least forty hours per week, every week, for five years, the apprentice is immersed in learning every aspect of the trade. Physical skills are, or should be, honed to a fine edge. Areas where the apprentice is lacking are, or should be, addressed and focused on improving. Formal education, such as code classes, are a requirement as is a practical exam before the apprentice can achieve journeyman status.

Think about that for a minute. Then think about what we have, or haven’t given, to our younger generations. How many young people today do you know, or have seen, who would invest their time and labor to work in a trade that requires such dedication? Even when you factor in the monetary compensation a career in the trades can give them, many would just as soon use the phrase “you want fries with that?” … and carry that huge student loan debt to boot!

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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