Reader, and fellow “gray beard,” Russ Smith contacted me about an idea he has been trying to get some traction on. Russ has been in the trades for many years and had worked with the State of Florida in various ways to get the more involved with developing and executing programs to bring new people into vocational training.  Presently he is the warehouse and fleet manager for Applewood Plumbing, Heating and Electric out of Denver.  Retired from his business in Florida, but not tired, Russ relocated to Colorado for family.

With a wealth of experience in both education and the trades, Russ’ idea is this: utilize our existing, but mothballed, military bases as technical training facilities. The idea is pragmatic, straightforward and, on the surface, seems to make perfect sense. We need people, we need training facilities and we need programs to train these people. Why not use those facilities which have, ostensibly, already been paid for with our tax dollars? In many cases the facilities Russ is speaking of having everything that a college has; housing, lab or shop buildings, facilities for food service and infrastructure for just about any type of mechanical trade education you could name and they already exist! No budgetary exploding planning, acquisition, construction, bond floating problems! Talk about your no-brainer, you say?

Not so fast. Can you think of why this idea can’t get traction? It is entirely possible that trade education programs could take advantage of these existing facilities and be providing the trades with well educated, qualified apprentices and journeymen in short order. So why aren’t they? In a word … politics. I’m not trying to give my editor fits, but the time for “political correctness” is long past. Who gets what and from whom is the name of the game.

Federal and local government functionaries, the education establishment, organized labor and the industry at large all have the ability, as well as the moral imperative, to get behind ideas like this. It is past high time to put the sacred cows out to pasture before the manpower crisis that we are in puts them out for good.  I am quite sure that there are those readers’ who can think of a lot of reasons why doing something along the lines of Russ’s idea won’t work, but I ask you this; what are the reasons that it can work?

Instead of listening to, as former Vice President Spiro Agnew famously said, “Nattering Nabobs of Negativism,” we, as an entire industry, need to embrace good ideas and put all of our considerable efforts into making them productive for our own future. It has become too easy to “let George do it” when confronted with a thorny problem that does not directly benefit or impact us. That is not the American way. That is not the trades way either.

We in the trades built this great nation. I recently saw a slide show of the construction of the Empire State Building. Begun in 1929 and finished in 1931, the men that built that skyscraper did it with hardly any of the modern tools we now use, let alone the plethora of safety equipment, rules and regulations that we have today. They did it without OSHA, they did it without Workmen’s Compensation. They did it without a lot of government intervention. They did it with their hands, backs, muscle and brains. They built it in two years and lost only five men (one hit by a bus). Now tell me again why we can’t get ideas like Russ’s off the ground?  All it takes is the will to do it. I have spoken with top management of companies that are in the business of providing the tools and materials we use and, to a man (or woman) they are on board. They ask, “What can we do to help?”

We see men like Humberto Marinez getting his idea for Construction Career Days off the ground and into a viable program. In states like Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas we see concerted efforts by such groups as CEFGA and NCCER (The National Center for Construction Education and Research) making a push to get more participation in a vocational education program. These organizations need and deserve our support.  I’m researching several other commercial organizations that want to train people for our industry. The Associated General Contractors Association is heavily involved in identifying and working with vocational education advocates such as C3 (Construction Career Collaborative). We need to sharply focus on this issue and we can make a difference. We need to do it now. The trades as we have known them are changing, and in my opinion, not for the better. 

Next month; a further look at the organizations and companies that are trying to get trade education moving again.

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 atallen@proquilldriver.com.