Critical mass is defined as a point at which change occurs. Although the origin of the term “critical mass” was brought into our collective vocabulary during the development of nuclear technology, it has evolved to mean a pivotal point; a point at which some sort of change is going to occur.

Over the past few years I’ve written columns about the state of labor in the trades and the increasing lack of qualified and quality trainees coming into the field. At a recent breakfast meeting with a manufacturer’s representative, (a friend of some 30 years) who is in a position to see and hear what is happening in our market, the subject was drawn into sharp focus. The topic was labor and news wasn’t good.

The gap

“The good mechanics and journeymen are all working,” my friend said.  “There is a huge gap between the really good guys, the quality guys, and the next level of what I’ll call ‘mediocre’ tradesmen and it goes down from there.  It’s become a chasm that must be bridged if the trades are going to thrive and survive moving forward.”

The gap between the really good craftsmen and everyone else can partly be explained by education or the lack thereof. First and foremost, there are precious few programs nationwide in our schools which address vocational education.  We’re not talking about wood shop, metal shop or even auto shop, which were once considered fun classes, but a full blown curriculum leading to tertiary education in a trade or craft. Not every student is college material. Not every student who can get into college wants to go to college. There are many students who like to work with their hands or who have an interest in the construction industry, but the powers that be consider such “blue collar” calling beneath their notice and tacitly, or actively discourage it.

Europe, by contrast, has elevated the construction trades to a level on a par with liberal arts or other schools of education. There is pride in craft there that we have lost in the U.S. It’s noticeable, and it’s sad. If we in the trades specifically, and the construction industry generally, do not address this problem immediately we all will pay the price. Indeed, we are paying the price already.

Training and quality

One of the brightest lights in trade education is apprenticeship training offered by the UAand the PHCC. Over the years, pride in craft and trade skills have been passed down to apprentices through these programs and, to their credit, the programs have turned out some outstanding mechanics. There are other trade and craft organizations, such as the Association for Construction Career Development, which have programs designed to bring qualified students into the industry as well, and give them a foundation for continuing in it successfully.

The one problem with these programs is that there simply aren’t enough of them.  There isn’t a concerted effort or drive to locate and nurture the trade talent that the industry needs now and will need in the future. It will take a real, as opposed to half-hearted ‘lip service’ effort to get qualified and quality people involved and invested in the industry.

One problem with that idea is societal. Young people have become so accustomed to instant gratification that the idea of a four or five year apprenticeship is a huge negative. Pride in craft must be brought forward and made to mean something before the trade will get the type of commitment from apprentices that it really wants to see. There is a world of difference between working at a ‘job’ for six months and earning journeyman’s status after four or five years of intense education and on-the-job training. Would you want a doctor with only a few short months of education and training working on you? Of course not!

My friend mentioned a large and well known industrial company in the greater Phoenix area that cannot find enough welders to man the project. There are simply no qualified welders to be found.  As for orbital welding, stainless and clean room welders, his comment was “good luck with that.” This is a sad commentary on the state of our trade.  In these hard economic times, the opportunity is there to work, the work is out there to be had and yet there are not nearly enough qualified mechanics to get the job done.

A better way, or a different way, must be found to attract, train and maintain a quality workforce. We have the available population, we need to do a better job of getting our message out there. We need to petition our school boards and secondary schools to change the curricula and add more vocation training. We need to support apprenticeship training and encourage those young people that we come in contact with to pursue careers in the trades and lastly, we need to foster or continue to foster pride in craft.

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 allen@proquilldriver.com.