Steve Swanson teaching a class at Uponor Academy.

I Never Saw it Coming

March 19, 2019
I am now at a point in my life where sometimes I can actually see some things coming ahead of time. And there is one thing I see coming in the future that we in the industry need to address.

A lifetime ago, I was the vice president of a plumbing and heating supply house in Minneapolis. I didn’t capitalize “Vice President” because, at that time, there were only six of us working there, and being a “vice president” was a pretty small thing.

Our business on 44th and Nicollet in South Minneapolis was a borough of aging, post-World-War-II built houses. People struggled to keep their homes up, and some weren’t doing so well — neither was the neighborhood.

Across the street from us was a “recording studio” (if you could call it that). It was owned by a guy who I always called “Mr. Nelson” (heavy emphasis on the Mr.). I was a younger man then, and he was an even younger man. He always laughed when I called him “Mr. Nelson”.

He was a very nice guy — always doing something for someone else. In the neighborhood, he often helped people out of a jam even though he had no money of his own. He always amazed me that way. The neighborhood genuinely loved the guy.

On the rare occasion I didn’t immediately leave work and go home, I would drift across the street to see who was recording at his “studio” (yuk-yuk). The people who came in and out of Mr. Nelson’s recording studio reminded me of the bar scene from Star Wars. “Eclectic” doesn’t even come close to describing them. And the “music” would mostly give me a headache.

Once, he finished a song he was working on and asked me what I thought of it. I didn’t think his style of music would catch on, so I asked him if he knew any Beach Boys songs instead. From that day on, he always looked at me a little sideways.

One day, a limousine pulled up in front of his recording studio, and Mr. Nelson got in and took off. I never saw him again. He went on to become Prince. And I went on to become not-famous.

It turns out his first name really was “Prince.” Who knew? I always thought he was kidding when he said his name was Prince. That’s why I called him Mr. Nelson. People ask me if I ever got his autograph. Of course not. I never thought his music would make it.

I never saw it coming.

The ‘Titanic’ of faucets

About the same time as the Prince debacle, our local plumbing rep came into the shop to sell us a line of faucets that was selling like crazy everywhere else but our shop. It had only one handle. It could produce both hot and cold water at the same time just by moving this one handle back and forth.

In those days, all the other faucets had two handles. The one-handle faucet was the invention of a guy named Moen, and — according to the rep — it was going to revolutionize the plumbing industry. I took one look at the faucet and quickly deduced that a two-handled faucet with seats and washers could be repaired for about 25 cents, while a Moen repair cartridge sold for more than six dollars. Six dollars?! Are you kidding?! This was the Titanic of all faucets. This thing would never sell!

Within the next 10 years, this loss of knowledge, as experts exit the trades, could be just as profound as the lack of new people entering the industry.

I never saw it coming.

Fortunately, clearer minds prevailed, and we ended up taking on the line of faucets and making a boatload of money selling them. To my credit, once I figured it out, I was a real advocate.

Now, before you get the idea that the author of this story couldn’t pick a winning horse if Seabiscuit bit him in the butt, I did learn. And I got better at being able to see things coming by using what I had learned in the past.

I am now at a point in my life where sometimes I can actually see some things coming ahead of time. And there is one thing I see coming in the future that we in the industry need to address.

Wanted: 200,000+ more plumbers!

There is a perfect storm brewing in our profession today. We have an aging workforce, a retiring workforce, and fewer people joining the trades than leaving.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average plumber is 56 years old. By 2026, 130,800 plumbers will have retired and need to be replaced. But besides replacements for the retirees, we will also need an additional 75,200 plumbers to meet projected building demands.

Add those two numbers together and you will arrive at a need for 206,000 newly trained plumbers in just seven years (and there is an equal shortage for other skilled trades as well).

Most people in our industry are aware of this predicament and have been working hard to correct it. But one of this dilemma’s side effects (that many might not be aware of) is a knowledge-loss crisis. Within the next 10 years, this loss of knowledge, as experts exit the trades, could be just as profound as the lack of new people entering the industry. The knowledge shortfall will also result in more lost revenue than the lack of industry newcomers.

By definition, knowledge loss means the loss of any relevant knowledge that was meant to stay within the organization. And it’s not just the fundamental knowledge of any trade, but also the massive amount of tips and tricks that every trade has acquired through the years that make jobs go faster and smoother. These tips and tricks are generally not published anywhere or stored anywhere except in the minds of the professionals themselves.

In our industry, a vast amount of knowledge will go with massive numbers of people retiring. In decades past, the industry compensated for this by providing apprenticeships, so new people could learn their trade over a period of time. The veterans would teach incoming apprentices all the necessary skills to ensure as much knowledge as possible was handed down.

And while that was an acceptable program in its time, the same methodology will not work if we are getting fewer people into the programs, Consequently, they have less fundamental knowledge of “hands-on” know-how that the generation before passed on.

Getting newcomers up to speed today takes considerably more time than even two decades ago. This is because of the loss of shop classes in middle schools and high schools — as well as the societal trend to work on computers rather than on engines or any other mechanical equipment.

Growing up, we made tree forts and go-karts. We rebuilt bicycles, tore apart engines and made contraptions out of wood and steel that defied definition. Today, it’s Fortnite, Grand Theft Auto, Minecraft and Mario Brothers. The basic, necessary, mechanical skills are just not being taught or used. So what are we going to do?

What’s the solution?

Retiring or departing employees always leave with more knowledge than when they first arrived. This is what needs to be recorded. And this knowledge comes in three areas: know-what, know-how and know-who.

  • Know-what is the day-to-day pieces of knowledge that are necessary to accomplish a job in the trades. What kinds of materials are available? What kinds of options are there to complete a job? And so-on.
  • Know-how is the knowledge it takes to make these puzzle pieces fit together to complete the job. This is where the initial training, the years of experience, and the tips and tricks come together to produce a finished product that works and works well.
  • The final one — know-who — is as important as the other two. It’s not just what you know, but who you know. Who has that one piece of information that will help get a project to completion successfully? Who has that one little part that few in the industry know? Who has experienced a rare situation before that can turn an impossible dilemma into a solution?

These “hidden” external connections in my life have been some of the most valuable pieces of information I know. We must start working to preserve this information. So what’s the plan?

First, we must start by building a knowledge-retention culture. This is a culture that fosters knowledge-transfer and knowledge-recovery initiatives. This is where our trade associations bring on a knowledge-loss subcommittee to centralize where this information is kept and make it available to our trades.

It would be like YouTube, but not like YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against YouTube. But we need our information categorized in a way that is easy for the tradesperson to search. For example, if something is broken and the tradesperson doesn’t know why it’s broken, they’ll have a hard time searching how to fix it. And often what’s needed is buried inside another subject.

As a way around that, perhaps organizations similar to Contractor magazine could develop “knowledge depots” where the industry could funnel information before it’s lost. Anyone with a camera in their cell phone can record a two-minute video tip and send it in. The information could be categorized into useable and accessible locations, and be made available to the young, incoming tradespeople.

We need to tap our retirees for information that might get lost. We need to re-access information that has already been forgotten in the libraries we already have. I heard a horror story the other day about a small business that had to replace their heating system completely because they couldn’t find someone who knew how to diagnose a two-pipe steam system.

Let’s continue the dialog. I’d love to hear from any of you who have thoughts or ideas of how we can prevent this from happening. I’d like to connect with others in the trades who are after this same thing. For as sure as Mr. Nelson became Prince, this knowledge loss crisis is going to bite us in the butt.

This time, I did see it coming.

As always, I would be grateful to hear your thoughts, ideas and stories. Until then, best regards and happy heating.

Steve Swanson is the national trainer at Uponor Academy. He actively welcomes reader comments and can be reached at [email protected].

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