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What Will the Future Look Like?

Right now, the future looks connected, efficient and expensive.

If you’ve read this month’s feature you can probably guess that I did a lot of walking the convention floor at Design and Construction Week--the combined Kitchen and Bath Industry Show/International Builders’ Show--in Las Vegas. At roughly one million square feet, that was a pretty big floor.

And there was a lot of the old familiar, a lot of the tried-and-true, but for most people exhibiting and attending the focus was on the latest and greatest. Looking at the high-end displays, the cutting-edge technology, was a lot like looking into the future.

Right now, the future looks connected, efficient and expensive. Everything is Wi-Fi enabled. Start your bath from your car with your smartphone on your way home. Or better still, have your bath waiting for you because it’s (for example) Wednesday at 6:25 PM.

When it comes to efficiency, there are circulators that run on next-to-no electricity; mod-con boilers that put every last therm right into the application; showerheads that use a fraction of the water but (somehow) make you feel like you’re standing under a waterfall.

And when it comes to luxury you might think we had entered a new gilded age. Even the low price-point fixtures are sporting high-end design touches. Meanwhile at the high price-point there are toilets that cost as much as my car.

I think simple economics will drive people back to the trades eventually—but at the same time I also think the business model will have to change.

To judge by the products on display and the huge crowds that came see them (about 100,000 people attended the combined show) it would seem that the future of the plumbing industry is a bright one, with profits aplenty for one and all.

And maybe that’s true for the manufacturers. But for those working on the front lines the problem remains the same: plenty of work to do, but not enough skilled hands to do it. The Baby Boomers keep retiring (about 3.7 million of them a year) and the following generations just aren’t picking up the wrenches. It’s gotten so bad that Steve Swanson in his Forum piece worries that we’re rapidly losing a huge amount of institutional knowledge that can never be regained.

Al Schwartz worries that the old way of running a plumbing business might no longer be a viable business model. That soon large, well-funded companies will snap up all the available talent, pay them top dollar and put an end to the independent plumber.

I’ve heard all the talk about how the kids these days don’t want to get their hands dirty; about how they’ve been brainwashed into thinking that a college education is the only path to success. And some of that might be true. But the young people I know seem to be a pretty enterprising bunch. Having lived through a Great Recession has made economic security a real priority for them (just as the Great Depression did for that generation). At the same time the explosion of college debt has left a lot of them skeptical of the value of a higher degree.

I think simple economics will drive people back to the trades eventually—but at the same time I also think the business model will have to change. About the only thing I can say for sure about the future of the plumbing trade is that people will always need water, and they will move it around through pipes. All the rest is up in the air.

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