The view of the Capitol building from the steps of the Supreme Court.

Politics and progress

July 11, 2017
On June 12, 2017, the federal government on national TV, announced a full frontal assault on the skills gap and the lack of vocational training.

I had a different topic planned for this column. That was before I watched and listened to Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta do a Q & A with the White House press corps, regarding the administration’s new initiative on narrowing the skills gap. You heard right… On June 12, 2017, the federal government on national TV, announced a full frontal assault on the skills gap and the lack of vocational training. To hear the Labor Secretary of the United States not only identify the problem with which we in the trades have been contending for years, but state, unequivocally, that the government intends to join with the national industries affected by it and actually do something about it was a giant step toward our collective goal.

Acosta’s speech was nothing short of a revelation. He accurately identified the very problems we are facing, across the board. Further, he expanded on his remarks by laying out the programs that the government intends to bolster, initiate and support. After all of the angst associated with the issue in our trade as well as all other industrial sectors, it seems as though all of the pushing, prodding, hand wringing, screaming, crying, shouting and pilot programs have finally hit the “big time!”

As gratifying as it was to hear a cabinet level official enumerate the problems we are, and have been, all too familiar with and to announce a full initiative to narrow the skills gap, the follow-up questions from the White House press corp were disheartening, to put it mildly.

While the video feed that I was watching did not show who the reporters asking the questions were, it mattered little. The collective ignorance, and obvious agenda, of the people responsible for reporting the substance of Acosta’s remarks to the American people was dumbfounding!! Whether the questioners were being deliberately obtuse, politically vicious or simply ignorant wasn’t even a consideration. The tone and tenor of their questions were so far removed from the substance of the Secretary’s remarks as to be astonishing. While their questions were, tangentially, focused on what was announced, they quickly left that arena and went totally off the reservation, as the saying goes.

The very first questioner equated trade school training to be akin to “indentured servitude” opining that blue collar jobs were poor paying and equivalent to some type of slavery. Acosta disabused the man of that notion stating that apprentice wages started around $60,000 ... much more than the starting salaries of most college graduates. After further reiterating the many benefits of a trade education (better wages, more job satisfaction, higher rates of employee retention and loyalty) and raising the issue of the skills gap and its impact on our labor force, the follow-up question got more and more bizarre. To repeat them here is not worth the electrons, nor the ink with which this magazine is printed.

Not being “politically correct” is a badge of honor that I wear proudly, so for those readers who are “anti” this administration let me say simply, with total sincerity, I do not care.  Our trade does not care. Our nation does not care, and most of all the people who this program can help do not care. The fact is that there are close to 1 million jobs in our trades alone going begging, and that’s just in the mechanical trades! Businesses cannot hire enough people to properly man their ranks, nor can they find qualified apprentices to train to fill those positions.  The lack of people who want to learn a trade can be laid directly at the feet of our societal disconnect and the push toward college education as being the “be all and end all” for young people coming out of high school.

Losing sight of the very thing that has built our nation; working for a living and producing something, is the sad pass at which we have arrived. By listening to the questions directed at the Labor Secretary, it is painfully obvious that we need a greater voice from our industry leaders to counter this deliberate ignorance and obfuscation. The program announced by the administration is a huge step in the right direction. I believe it is the culmination of the efforts of so many in the trades who have sounded the alarm for years, and worked diligently behind the scenes to not only identify the problem, but to actually go a long way toward solving it.

This is our moment. We have been given a golden opportunity to positively affect the future of our industry and to put the disaffected men and women of our country back to work while closing the skills gap. While I won’t compare this to the work initiatives of FDR that helped the country climb out of the great depression, it is certainly of a similar stripe! The time is now! Contact your representatives at every level of government. Make your voices heard.  Support this initiative. Make it happen! Educate the media to the importance of this issue and enlist their help in spreading the word.  Do it.  Do it now!

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. He can be reached at [email protected].

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