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Why the public’s perception of the trades is at an all-time low

Aug. 8, 2016
We must not forget that the trades built this country. The health of this nation was/is protected by the plumber. If you doubt that just look at under developed countries today ravaged with disease because of little to no sanitation and clean drinking water. Central heating and eventually cooling systems, as well as ventilation systems, brought comfort to the lives of the general population. 

Did Archie Bunker destroy our image? If you are under the age of 40, you probably don’t know who Archie Bunker is, so keep reading, I’ll get to it.

By CBS Television - eBay itemphoto frontphoto back, Public Domain,

I have been talking and writing about this subject for over 20 years now. This article is my attempt to wrap up 20+ years of sentiment, emotion and effort into one tight, neat package, so here goes.

We are professionals…

I need to stop here for a moment and clearly define for you what I believe a “professional” to be. Better yet, let me give you the definition that my grandparents gave the word … your grandparents, the general population of the United States circa 1900.

When Edward McDarby came to the United States from County Kildare, Ireland, on the ship Arabic, and his soon to be wife, Helen McCarthy on the ship Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1909 and 1910 respectively, they had big dreams not only for themselves, but for the family they were about to create.

As their family grew, eventually to eight children, they saw those in their community who held the highest stature and wanted that for their children. My grandparents told my mother, my aunts and uncles, that they wanted them to become professionals.

What did that mean in the early 1900s? It meant a lawyer, judge, doctor, and pipefitter. Yes, a tradesman was held in that regard. A pipefitter at that time encompassed many trades, such as plumbing, heating and air conditioning (the latter of which was still in its infancy).

Image: American Standard Co.

Proof of this cannot be better exemplified than in a poster (you are all very familiar with) created for an ad campaign for the American Standard Company back in 1924. That famous poster is “The Plumber Protects the Health of the Nation.” This was no joke! Pictured is the tradesman literally on a pedestal, the thankful and reverent public below.

We must not forget that the trades built this country. This is not an overstatement, but rather a reality. The health of this nation was/is protected by the plumber. If you doubt that just look at under developed countries today ravaged with disease because of little to no sanitation and clean drinking water.

Central heating and eventually cooling systems, as well as ventilation systems, not only brought comfort to the lives of the general population, but provided healthy living and working environments that staved off bacteria and airborne contaminants.

The DNA of our trade (our DNA) is rooted in the development of the greatest nation in the world, the United States of America!

So, here we are in the year 2016 and I find it necessary to inform the young people of our trade of this history — a history lost to many and just a distant memory to a few.

What happened? Why is our trade no longer held in this same regard?

Here’s my take

This didn’t happen overnight. I will start where the trades came into my own consciousness … the 1970s. In 1971 I was 10 years old. A new TV show was premiering on CBS called, “All In The Family.”

Now, I’m not going to get into the premise of the show, you young guys can Wikipedia the title and read all about it on your own. This show was my first exposure to a tradesman being ridiculed, minimized and characterized in a less than flattering manner.

Archie Bunker, the main character of the show, had a wife named Edith and she had a cousin Amelia whose husband, Russ DeKuyper, was a plumber. Russ was depicted as a boisterous wealthy braggart who took over his father in-law’s successful plumbing business. Archie despised Russ and would say things like “Russ made his money ripping off his customers” and that he “has his hands in toilets all day.”

In 1986 I was 25 years old and a movie starring Tom Hanks and Shelly Long premiered called, “The Money Pit” was on the silver screen.

The movie depicted a couple who buy their first home and subsequently endure one home related disaster after another. No trade was spared in the movie: construction, plumbing, electrical, HVAC. All the trades depicted as thieves and idiots who do nothing but require huge sums of money and do shabby work if they do any work at all.

Let me try and go back before my time. How about a painting by Norman Rockwell called “The Plumbers”, circa 1951. It depicts two Laurel & Hardy type characters as plumbers. I think the image speaks for itself.

This Rockwell work first appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on June 2, 1951. The U.S. Postal Service in the 1990s used this Norman Rockwell image to create a framed re-issue of three stamps dedicated to the trades and water conservation.

Need I say more? Are you getting where I’m going with this?

Look, I’m not so naïve to think a television show, a movie or a painting is the cause of the lost reputation of our trade, but I will more than suggest that the culmination of all the above and more, attributed to the decline of our reputation.

We didn’t help our own cause either… I was somewhere recently on my way to an airport. It was a typical day for me, and I passed a plumbing firm that was named, “The Honest Plumber.”

Really? Seems innocent enough but can’t you see what calling yourself “The Honest Plumber” implies? It implies all the other plumbers are dishonest!

Am I over sensitive about this … maybe.

Here is my bottom line. We need to work toward regaining the stature our trade rightfully enjoyed almost 100 years ago. We are professionals. We deserve to be treated like professionals. We deserve to earn professional wages.

There is responsibility that comes with this. If we want to be seen and treated as professionals we must act like professionals. I make this statement in every mini split class I conduct. I weave this mission of mine into the discussion of proper equipment sizing. A “professional job” starts with proper sizing, a proper ACCA Manual J calculation.

I’m speaking to the young people of our trade directly here. Whether you made a conscious decision to enter this trade or you fell into it by accident, you ultimately made a wise decision. While all your buddies who thought they were so smart going into “computers” sit at home waiting for a job offer, you are out making good money, using both your mind and your hands and continuing in the tradition of an honorable trade — a profession!

I charge the young people of our trade to work tirelessly and endlessly to regain what once was. I challenge my contemporaries to keep up the good fight and remember — our trade helped to build the greatest country on earth!

Gerry Wagner has been in the HVACR and renewable technology industry for 35 years. His unique combination of in-the-field experience as well as academic background along with his communication skills, creative abilities and humor make him one of the top HVACR and renewable technology instructors in the industry. Wagner established ESPCO to move beyond the limitations of typical training offered by manufacturers and manufacturer’s representative firms and take his unique style of technical training to a national audience with an unlimited product and subject curriculum. 

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