I recently read an article about AR (Augmented Reality), and how it is the new “it” thing in our ever-expanding universe of digital enhancements to the trades. The article, by a firm called Global Research, made much of the fact that while 55% of the respondents said they were looking into AR and the concepts behind it, few were going to purchase the technology. The article glossed over this fact, other than to mention it, and made assumptions as to why. They then laid out their case for why we need such tech.
What was left unsaid or unreported is the fact that most, if not all, of the companies interviewed can’t find enough bodies to put into the field to do the work. They are less concerned with attracting young people to play virtual games, (regardless of what they are called, they are in reality, games) in an office setting than they are in finding, training and retaining qualified people to do the work.
While making much of how this technology would bring young people into the trades because... it’s cool?... cutting edge?... like some video game??? The authors seem to have missed a salient point: this tech does absolutely nothing to help with the labor shortage of “guys in the trenches spinning the wrenches.”
It seems that this is the case across the board for most of the new digital “enhancements” shown on the pages of this magazine and other trade publications. Everyone seems to be enamored of the latest new thing in the digital realm. What is missing from this equation is the link between the digital world and reality. In this and many other, cases there is none.
I’d be the first one to admit that there are products out there that have made being in business easier and more profitable, especially for the small shops. Job cost control, vehicle control, point of purchase sales, etc. have benefited enormously from the advances in digital and interactive technology. Likewise, running a large business with many dozens of employees and/or service trucks has been made infinitely easier by the advent of accounting, scheduling, supply ordering/inventory and tracking software.
Probably the biggest advantage in the digital realm to the average contractor is communications. Between smart phones, email, Zoom and other pieces of tech, communications have become almost instantaneous. This has had the effect of shrinking miscommunication errors to almost zero and has opened the door to virtual project management programs like BIM, which are invaluable as field aids when working on complex projects.
Missing the Point
Still, there is a disconnect between all this cool new technology and field operations at a basic level. Virtually none of this new digital technology addresses the actual work being done in the field. Can anyone tell me how hiring young people to play with virtual reality programs gets that soil pipe underground done? Or who is going to top-out that multi-story project?
In my humble opinion, the folks who make these software “solutions” to industry problems are missing the point of it all. At a quick read, it appears that virtually no consideration is being given to the actual work that needs to be done. Oh, sure, you can manipulate your mouse or other digital tools and make pretty pictures, flow charts, schedules, and such, but where does that get you if there is no one out there actually putting the systems together in real time? There may come a time, probably sooner than later, when robots are trained to install plumbing or HVAC piping, but that time is not now. Right now we need people to enter the trade to actually work at it, not play augmented reality programs because they are cool.
I would hope that dissenting opinions such as this one are, if not welcome, at least taken at face value. We, as a nation, have quite simply lost the idea of what it is to actually work for a living. I mean physical work. While it might be cool to watch robots in futuristic movies and television programs do all the work, it is not happening now. By catering to those who would rather sit and play video games than get up and get their hands dirty, we are aiding and abetting a crisis of our own making.
While it is good that this technology has a platform for trade people to parse and review, it is equally important that opposing views by shared. To have access to new and cutting-edge technology is important, especially today. Having said that, however, it is equally important to acknowledge that without the people to implement the actual installation of the material and equipment in real time these new programs aren’t worth the electrons they are written with.
Since the trades are not homogeneous, and encompass all facets of a base industry (construction) which keeps the nation moving forward, it does not make any sense to lure new people into the trades with new digital toys without first addressing the acute problem of getting people to do the work in reality. End of rant, as you were.
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].