The construction trades are a world unto themselves. The community of the skilled trades is as different from most other jobs as hot is from cold. Can we expect a person who spends their days working in an office environment pecking at a keyboard, moving electrons on a screen and crunching data to understand, let alone relate, to someone who spends that same amount of time putting something together physically? Can the office person understand the physical effort required to actually build something? Can a trade worker understand or relate to the digital office world of today?
These are all good questions. The answer is... maybe, maybe not. In this writer’s opinion, that is the conundrum our country finds itself in. The basic disconnect between folks who have been brought up to believe that physical labor is somehow less worthwhile than tapping a keyboard.
The Old Ways
In chatting with some young(er) guys who are in the plumbing/HVAC business it is clear that we have evolved ourselves right out of the very thing that makes our industry so unique, with new people earnestly wanting to come into the trades. We all know by now that the biggest single complaint today is manpower, or lack thereof. Next in line is trying to train new people—if you are fortunate enough to actually find a viable candidate. While I cannot say that every conversation I have had with businessmen in our industry revolved around the quality of new hires, it was a topic included in the majority of them.
The topic seems to revolve around trying to train an apprentice who is so thin skinned and easily offended that merely correcting a deficient skill can be cause for them to quit. Their feelings get hurt at the drop of a hat. Add to that the inflated sense of their own worth (“I’ve been here a whole month, I deserve more money”) and you have one of the biggest issues facing the industry’s manpower crunch. Not the only issue, but a big one.
In years past, probably for as far back as any of us can remember, apprenticing in the trades was not only something to strive for, it was considered a coup of sorts to become apprenticed in a trade. I cannot speak to HVAC, so I won’t, but I can speak to the plumbing/pipefitting trades. Worrying about hurting someone’s feeling because of getting yelled at when teaching the trade was never on anyone’s radar... ever!
It’s not a stretch to say that there was zero consideration given about an apprentice’s sense of self worth when teaching the trades. They either learned the skills or went down the road, as simple as that. I am not advocating we go back to the “three strikes” rule of apprenticeship that existed when I was an apprentice (the journeyman “showed you” the first time, “told you” the second time and “whacked you across the back of your head” if you screwed it up a third time), but I can say that system certainly motivated apprentices.
The New Ways
Today, it is more likely that a journeyman who dared lay hands on an apprentice, even by doing something as innocuous a shoving the apprentice out of the way to correct an error, would likely be subject to the apprentice quitting, or to be charged with assault and the apprentice quitting.
That begs the question, how do you teach a skilled trade to someone who is so sensitive and thin-skinned that the slightest criticism sends them into paroxysms of fear and rejection? This is a serious question and deserves a serious answer. I just don’t have one.
Filling a Void
Nature, as well all know, abhors a vacuum. Even as we struggle with getting new people to enter the trades and investing themselves in learning it, solutions are presenting themselves, or are being found by those who are not ready to see their businesses implode, dry up and disappear.
What do you do when you need more people but can’t fill the bill with local prospects? You look elsewhere. While immigration from European countries is strictly limited these days, a labor force from south of the border does not seem to be so restricted. Here, in the southwest, there is a labor pool of immigrants who are young, energetic and eager for work... any work. They work as many hours as they can, giving their full effort. They show up on time, and work until the job is done.
I’m simply stating the empirically observable facts, not advocating anything. If we can’t fill the trade ranks with viable apprentices because of a societal shift, then we need to fill those ranks from wherever we can find those people. If it takes congressional action to legalize these folks, then it will take congressional action. We have done so before in our history. If our businesses are to thrive and survive moving forward something needs to happen.
I recognize that these opinions are not universally popular. They are this author’s opinions and not those of CONTRACTOR Magazine. A truth is a truth, whether or not you agree with it. The trades are suffering. Whether that turns into a death knell depends upon how committed we all are to keeping it alive.
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].