Changing employee demographics

March 13, 2018
While all manner of ways and means are being applied to recruit new blood into our trade, one which has only recently reported on is recruiting women.

There is an interesting conversation being conducted within our trade and other construction trades. Of course, available manpower and how to get it is in the forefront of the debate, as is the millennial generation’s seeming lack of work ethic and even the inclusion of the DACA kids as potential recruits. What this all means to the future of our industry is anyone’s guess.  My guess is that there will be some fusion of all of the above. The real issue is immediacy. While all manner of ways and means are being applied to recruit new blood into our trade, one which has only recently reported on is recruiting women.

Let me state for the record; I am not a misogynist, not “anti-woman in the trades,” a member of the “he-man woman haters club”-(Little Rascals, for all you young-uns) or any other pejorative with which readers might want to tar me.  I simply ask the obvious question; is recruiting women into the trade an idea whose time has come? Let’s face facts, women are 50% percent of the population and, generally speaking, women are smarter than men (try arguing with you wife or girlfriend if you doubt it). Challenging women by opening up a new area of opportunity might prove to be a good thing. The fact that they haven’t, traditionally, been a factor in the labor force of the trades does not mean that they should be discounted today. After all, the changes in traditional roles in western society have undergone huge changes in the past forty or fifty years.

Throwing the subject open for honest debate and discussion might be considered a dangerous game, but I’m old and couldn’t care less about political correctness. My sole purpose in bringing the issue up is to find solutions to the current labor shortage in the venerable trade that I grew up in, worked at and that both of my children, as well as many friends, work at every day. Ladies in the trades are not a new phenomenon. There are a few, emphasis on few, shops across the nation that are either run by women at the management level or that have women owners, but there are not very many ladies spinning wrenches in the trenches. 

Given the differences in physiology, is hiring and training women to work in the field a good or bad idea? Obviously, during the Second World War, the ladies stepped up and took over for the men who were off fighting the Axis, and did so with little complaint and with great success. Having said, the sheer physical demands of the plumbing and pipefitting trades require the one thing that separates the sexes...muscle.

The lack of muscle mass and brute strength when handling heavy things in a crew setting is a definite disadvantage and might, in some cases, make a dangerous job even more-so.

In service shops, where brawn is only a marginal issue, recruiting women to learn the trades is an easy answer to a difficult situation.  Mechanical aptitude is the main criteria. Manual dexterity and the ability to problem solve actually argue more in favor of the ladies than in the guys, as a rule. When you add in the generally genial nature and “feminine” qualities (please, no angry letters), you’re looking at a net win for female plumbers. Working toward bringing in female service technicians is not only a good thing, but a great thing. Let’s face it, the untapped market for new hires, which recruiting women is, could be the permanent answer to the serious labor shortage that the industry faces as a whole.

The issue of women on the construction job site is an entirely different thing. While it is popular today to tear down all barriers between men and women (even the U.S. Navy is posting women on submarines, something that was taboo until 2016), the one thing political correctness can’t shout down is Mother Nature.

Dealing with heavy things is taxing, even for men. Back, knee and shoulder injuries are common over the long term for plumbers and pipefitters who labor on major construction projects. I know the arguments in favor of women being “stronger” than men in certain areas, but not this area.

Imagine a scenario where manipulation and setting ductile iron or, say, large diameter steel pipe is required. Would having a woman on the crew be a help or a hindrance? Yes, there are mechanical assets such as backhoes and lifts that would ameliorate the disadvantage, but most times sheer muscle is required. I’m sure there are many examples that will be sent my way detailing how female plumbers/pipefitters would be an asset, and some might be true, but I just can’t see it across the board. The lack of muscle mass and brute strength when handling heavy things in a crew setting is a definite disadvantage and might, in some cases, make a dangerous job even more-so. This problem is not insurmountable, but it must be acknowledged and addressed seriously, without the PC hysteria we see everywhere today.

Now, for the sake of this article, let us pretend that the recruitment of females into the trade in large numbers has happened. The 500-pound Gorilla in the room is the social interactions. Given all the ink #METOO has received as well as all of the political accusations, counter accusations and fallout currently being pushed by the media, the gender war (my term) will not be over for some time. How will the natural tensions between the sexes play out in the trade environment? It’s one thing to work in an office setting where interactions are, more or less, verbal in nature. It’s quite another to work alongside a woman on a construction site where physical contact is common during some operations.

Will charges of harassment and unwanted attention become another human resources nightmare for the front office? Will fear of lawsuits and other legal actions chill the integration of women into the trade? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Despite all of the highbrow shrieking and pandering done by feminist groups and social justice warriors, human nature is what it is, and no amount of political pressure will eliminate it. Men will still view women as women, and not equals, in the one area where Mother Nature has sway. Not everyone will be so boorish, but there are certainly enough out there to make the issue problematic.

As with anything new and different, the integration of the sexes on the job site will require time and effort to become a “thing.” As a practical matter, it’s a no brainer. As an academic exercise, it will require a greater depth of understanding than we now exhibit to make it come to fruit. 

So, back to the question at hand, is it time to focus recruitment on the female side of our population? My answer would be yes. Watching the trades sink slowly in the morass of too much work and too few new people to join the trade is not a fun thing. The problem is immediate and it needs an immediate, yet practical solution.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a 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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