Mentoring for plumbers and youngsters

June 6, 2014
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) 20% of all jobs require a Bachelor's degree or higher, which means if we do the math 80% don't! The BLS reports that 67% of all jobs require some kind of post-secondary technical training, like plumbing and heating.

It was at a contractor conference in Long Beach, Calif., where Rick Picard came up to me after my speech. Looking a bit teary-eyed, Picard conveyed his emotional reaction to a PowerPoint image that I displayed.

As a frequent conference speaker, I have learned to make photographs do the heavy lifting. Some images share eloquence better than me.

Steve Coscia's dad's truck.

In this particular day, the phrase, “a picture tells a thousand words” fit, and the photograph of my father’s truck hit its mark.

Parked at the corner of East 185th Street and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, N.Y., the truck image speaks volumes about life, work and mentoring.

And that truck image reminded Rick Picard about his own mentoring experience as a 14-year-old teenager.

Back then, Picard worked a part-time job at Lakeview Beverages, a soda company that bottled, sold and home-delivered carbonated soft drinks in Webster, Mass. He was a high school student with no particular career aspirations.

A plumbing and heating contractor maintained Lakeview Beverages’ boiler and refrigerating units and everyone called him “Refrigerator Joe.” 

Joe Pawalczyk was an elderly gentleman with a rough tone-of-voice and a gentle demeanor. Picard encountered Pawalczyk on Wednesdays and Fridays at Lakeview Beverages, when the soda bottles were sanitized, refilled and refrigerated.

Curious about the mechanical work, Picard looked over Pawalczyk’s shoulder and asked numerous questions about the equipment and the tools. The barrage of questions from this youngster tried the elder plumber’s patience.

Picard’s relentless inquiries and interruptions to Pawalczyk’s work came to a climax one day. Realizing that the impetuous teenager wasn’t going to stop, Pawalczyk decided to take action.

“If you’re going to keep bothering me, you might as well do some work,” said Pawalczyk. “Hey kid, go to my truck and get the white bucket with the tools.”

Excited about the prospect of being the elder’s helper, Picard threw himself into the schlepping. 

And thus began Pawalczyk’s role as a mentor and Picard’s mechanical apprenticeship.  Subsequent vocational high school enrollment and continued work with Pawalczyk burgeoned into Picard’s successful plumbing and heating career at Rodenhiser Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning.

Upon reflection, Picard remembers, “Everyone in Webster, Massachusetts loved Joe because he was always available to his customers. They would call him day and night,” said Picard. “The mentoring lesson that I learned was that Joe enjoyed helping people.  It made him happy.”

Does Picard’s experience sound familiar?

Today’s younger workforce

Plumbing and heating contractors who I meet throughout North America, convey their dissatisfaction with today’s younger workforce. I have heard all the stereotypical anecdotes about teenagers being glued to their smartphones and lacking social etiquette. Are these stories true? You bet. But not 100% of the time.

Yes, it is more difficult to find teenagers who may not want a four-year university degree. They’d rather work with their hands and do something mechanical. Difficult, not impossible.

And these younger workers need the guidance of a mentor. Where do you go to find these mechanically-inclined youngsters?

They are in your midst. They’re in your neighborhood and in your high schools. That teenager who delivers your pizza may be a prime candidate to learn a new mechanical career.

What’s required to tap into today’s younger workforce? Approach them in their comfort zone of social media and technology and when a relationship is established, then seek to influence their perception of future employment. Like almost everything else in business, good things begin with a relationship.

Hire a youngster to conduct your company’s help wanted outreach to his or her counterparts. Today’s employment paradigm is reaching a tipping point which will soon be hard to ignore. 

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) 20% of all jobs require a Bachelor's degree or higher, which means if we do the math 80% don't! The BLS reports that 67% of all jobs require some kind of post-secondary technical training, like plumbing and heating.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point” he writes about “word-of-mouth epidemics” in which information spreads and dictates new trends and social changes.  Today’s plumbing and heating contractors are the harbingers of future employment opportunity. And utilizing a younger person to spread this message will yield greater results.

Mentoring younger workers

It has been my experience that young folks still seek the wisdom and experience of a mentor. Patience among us elder workers is a required attribute along with the insight to find a worker’s sweet spot.

Pawalczyk’s choice about giving Picard “something to do,” in an effort to learn about the youngster’s competency, resulted in a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship in which everybody wins.

Having taught soft skills at scores of technical colleges and trade schools through North America, I love it when a student calls me afterwards to ask questions and seek guidance. 

Once, a California student called to ask about something I said when I taught at his college. He and I had a lengthy phone conversation about self-control, serving others and knowledge acquisition. After I hung up the phone, an e-mail arrived from that student. “Thank you. Today’s phone call changed my life,” he wrote. 

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Steve Coscia helps contractors make more money, boost upselling and increase customer retention. He is the author of the HVAC Customer Service Handbook and a soft skills college curriculum that is taught at more than 100 trade schools worldwide.  To learn more about Steve Coscia go to To purchase his handbook and other educational products go to:

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