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‘That’s Not How We Used to Do It’

March 16, 2019
There has always been a certain ‘friction’ between new journeymen and the ‘old school’ guys about how things could and should be done.

Ever since the trades became “the trades” there have been masters teaching and apprentices learning. When apprentices studied and practiced long enough, to the satisfaction of their master, they became “journeymen.” Those were practitioners knowledgeable in, and adept at their craft, and able to practice it “at will” along the highways and byways of their travels (hence “journey” man). When these tradesmen had traveled enough, and practiced their skill enough and been there, done that enough they, in their turn, became the masters.

There has always been a certain ‘friction’ between new journeymen and the ‘old school’ guys about how things could and should be done. The younger guys always seemed to want to take short cuts in how they would do things, leaving out a step or two and, maybe, getting away with it from time to time. Meanwhile, the masters insisted on doings things a particular way; the known outcome of performing a task in a tried and true fashion. The point being that the ‘view from the top’ (master) is always more complete than the view from the road up (journeyman). That’s how it was. That’s how it should be.

That’s how the trade has been taught for as long as any of us can remember. That is one of the biggest reasons for the resistance to ‘new’ materials that require different (or lesser) skills to utilize, or new code procedures that contradict age old practices for the sake of political expediency or politics. Throughout history, the story has always been the same. The trades change to fit the times, but never at the exact time things change, and hardly ever do they lead the charge.

The fact of the matter is that doing things the way we’ve always done them isn’t going to work moving forward.

I offer this as a mea culpa: I was taught the trade the old way. I believe in the old ways, the four- or five-year apprenticeship course is just about right, in my view. Learning the skills to ply our craft are, in every sense, similar to those of a doctor or trial lawyer. You have to get your hands dirty. You have to skin a knuckle or two. In other words, you have to learn by doing. Book learning is fine for some things, but putting that book-learned knowledge to use is where the real craftsmanship comes in. You can read a book on making furniture and think you understand how it’s done and decide you want to make a cabinet. However, if you don’t know how to use the tools, how wood reacts to being cut, sanded, finished or the tricks of making accurate dovetail or mortise and tenon joinery, your efforts will be wholly unsatisfactory to say the least.

Because of my, admittedly, myopic viewpoint on this subject it was a great shock to me (and more than a bit humbling) to realize that the changes afoot for our trades have, or soon will have, become so far-reaching that an entirely new form will emerge. I have written many columns on the manpower crisis. I’ve opined on the lack of viable applicants, made suggestions on how to locate and hire willing apprentices, and decried the lack of work ethic in our younger generation... but nothing has changed. We are still being strangled by the lack of available manpower, both skilled and unskilled but trainable. The fact of the matter is that doing things the way we’ve always done them isn’t going to work moving forward.

Recently, I wrote about the new threat to our manpower issues on the horizon, the advent of well-funded, international cyber companies who are gearing up to invade—or have already invaded—the home remodel industry. These companies have a business model that entails hiring the very best trades people they can away from you, pay them better than you can, and give them more benefits to boot. After a period of adjustment these companies will have an in-house crew able to do quality work at a price point that will be competitive. Think Home Depot geared specifically to high end home remodeling but not DIY. One stop shopping for the homeowner or designer. One company to contract with to get everything done. One company to complain to if the work isn’t done well. One company that has the resources to pull together a design team from the Phillipines and coordinate with decorators from France and do the work with local craftsmen. What’s not to like?

Utility companies are jumping on this new idea as well, putting more pressure on the small- to medium-sized shops. They can afford to hire your best people and give them the things that you simply can’t. It’s not that your people are being short sighted either by jumping at these new opportunities. They are only doing what’s best for themselves and their families. It seems to be the way of things to come.

The thing is, I have been contacted by several people, who I respect, and who are knowledgeable about this trend. Basically, I’ve had to come to the sad realization that the future is here. One of the people I spoke with, who is a longtime industry insider at the highest levels, to had this to say: “There’s a sea-change coming in the contracting business. The days when a plumber could hang up his own shingle and make an honest living for decades is gone.” Sad to say, based upon everything I know about the state of the craft and the things that are trending in our industry, I agree.

Now that I’ve had to eat some crow, and have taken an unbiased look at things, the question remains, ‘What do we do about it?’ Wringing our collective hands isn’t going to get it done. We need a plan and we need a way forward. Suggestions readers?

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].

About the Author

Al Schwartz | Founder

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.

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