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Do We Have a Trade...or Don’t We?

April 2, 2019
! I want our trade to become vibrant again. I want new blood to come into it and to be proud of their chosen craft.

My last column seems to have “poked the bear.” If reader response is an indicator, there are many of you who disagree with the column’s premise. I agree with you! I want to agree with you! I want our trade to become vibrant again. I want new blood to come into it and to be proud of their chosen craft. I just don’t know how to make that happen...yet!

One glaring inconsistency noted in the new paradigm of mega contracting companies is this: What are they going to do when the current crop of trained journeymen and masters retire?  Who is going to teach the new blood? In my opinion, these new firms will run into the same issues we, as an industry, now face: how to get people interested in learning the trade, and keeping them involved and engaged while they are learning it. Compartmentalizing the trade into “tech” areas is not the answer. Teaching the whole trade is the best, and in my opinion, the only way to keep it intact.

There may very well be some masters out there who will sell their skills for “fifty pieces of silver” and there are definitely journeymen who will make the jump for no other reason than to better provide for their families or improve their incomes. But what about the guys who are trying to make a living in “Dogpatch, U.S.A.”?  They are the ones who will still have to deal with the problems of finding, keeping and training the new generation.

This is a big country, with a finite number of urban and suburban markets for these new companies to exploit. At some point, their ability to absorb skilled trades people will reach its limit, especially in rural areas. As with any tactical plan, supply lines are critical. If the manpower and/or materials are not available in a timely fashion, the attack stalls. There will be a distance beyond which it will be impractical for these new “one size fits all” firms to be competitive with local tradesmen. No one can predict the depth and breadth of the impact these new firms will have, long term, but it is safe to say that it will be felt most keenly in the larger markets. So, should we concentrate on reviving the trade in the areas where these new firms are not (yet) operating?  Perhaps.

Another player in the urban/suburban marketplace are the large Plumbing /Mechanical/ HVAC/ Electrical companies. These firms have established themselves in cities across the country over the past forty or so years, and are consolidating their positions either because of, or in response to, the new developments we have been reporting on. Not a new phenomenon, to be sure, but given the challenges we face as an industry, certainly a better alternative to these new all-in-one contracting firms. At least they train people on the trades specifically.

Exclusionary practices should be a thing of the past. Anyone who is a qualified candidate and who is willing to put the time in to learn the trade should be welcomed to any and all training classes and given every opportunity to learn.

I have no direct knowledge as to how the UA is faring in the recruitment area, but I can make the assumption that it is having the same problems that the non-unions shops are having in getting people into the trades.

NOTE:  I have little interest in politics as regards the union/non-union debate, and ZERO interest in political correctness. My comments and opinions here, if they get past my editor, are based on my own experience gathered over fifty-five years working in the trade, both union and non-union.

In my considered opinion, we ALL need to step up and confront the issues which face the trade we love without regard to who’s sandbox we are playing in. The UA and NAPHCC have great training programs and a lot of political influence. It is past time, in my view, that these entities pool their resources and open their enrollments to qualified candidates, regardless of the status of the student. Exclusionary practices should be a thing of the past. Anyone who is a qualified candidate and who is willing to put the time in to learn the trade should be welcomed to any and all training classes and given every opportunity to learn. If they want to join a local, great; if not, there is no reason to exclude them. Better, in my view, to train qualified people with the possibility of joining your organization left open, than excluding good candidates and depriving our craft of new blood because they don’t want to play with your ball.

The danger our trade faces today is very real. It is the danger of extinction which, as we all know, is forever. History is replete with stories of people who clung tightly to a failing ideology only to be overrun by a new order. Conversely, there are also numerous stories of people adapting and surviving. No one wants to think that their way of life is disappearing before their eyes, but those things happen with more regularity that we know.

We’ve been beating this horse (manpower) for the past twenty or so years, and while we have all been saying, “it’ll turn around”...it hasn’t and more importantly, it doesn’t look likely to, not without some serious effort to blunt both the predatory “new guys on the block” and our societal issues regarding work ethic and trade desirability.

Instead of becoming more insular and protecting our turf, we need to become more inclusive (I really hate that word, but it fits) in how we approach the coming years if our craft is to survive and prosper as it deserves.   

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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