Although it is easy to point the finger of blame for the decline of trade craft at the lack of educational opportunities and available programs, we in the industry are not immune from criticism either.  From large companies to the small one-man shop, quality workmanship and craft has suffered tremendously. There is nothing so sad to see as sloppy, substandard workmanship, disregard for details and a general lack of pride in the work being done. As for a comprehension of the total job parameters? If you can find one man in 10 who truly understands the overall systems that he is installing and how they integrate into the whole you’d be doing well. That doesn’t even begin to account for the extreme lack of understanding of the materials available and how they are used.

It is absolutely disheartening to see a supposed ‘journeyman’ (or ‘tech,’ if that’s what you want to call the guys these days) not be familiar enough with the materials he is using to put in the right fittings or even know which are available and how they work, and that doesn’t even address making a substitution with other materials in order to do the job right.

Hydraulics, hydronics, drainage, waste and venting, gas and fluid piping, sizing and installation, duct work, boilers, heating and cooling for commercial, industrial, residential applications are what our trades are supposed to be about. Yet if my own observations (and those of many other ‘old timers’ as well) are any indication, we are failing miserably with our trainees and new hires.

The basic scenario for learning a trade could, and should, follow a stratified course. Below is an example:

  1. New hire is evaluated by senior personnel, whether a foreman, journeyman or other qualified employee, as to the level of his education (language, mathematics and comprehension) and mechanical abilities, (i.e., How the prospect works with his hands; how he uses tools; his level of engagement with the learning process and enthusiasm for his job).  If the new hire has had prior schooling or training, the level of that training should be tested to gauge where in the overall trade course he is.

2.  Once the level of ability has been determined, the apprentice should be paired with a journeyman of sufficient skill to start the training process.

3.  The apprentice should be evaluated on an every six month (or three month, or whatever works for the company) basis for level of improvement, trade skills, organizational ability, etc.

4.  Raises in compensation should be based upon improved skill and trade craft, not longevity as it seems to be the practice today.  If, for example, an apprentice is really sharp and excels at learning and applying the trade knowledge, a raise is a good incentive to keep that enthusiasm high. If, on the other hand, a trainee simply lacks either the drive or ability to improve at an acceptable rate, the lack of a timely monetary incentive will either motivate that trainee to improve or he will simply wash out and go elsewhere.

5.  As a trainee improves his skill set, he should be exposed to as many different types of work as are available to broaden his knowledge base. Learning to work with different journeymen or foremen is as important as any other aspect of the training process.

6.  As soon as the trainee is deemed to have acquired enough knowledge and experience, he should be allowed to move on to doing work with less supervision.

7. After a suitable period of time (no less than four years in my humble opinion) the apprentice should be ready to spread his wings as a journeyman. Testing is not mandatory, but should be strongly considered. At the very least a practical skill test should be administered.

Throughout the training process the apprentice should be taught the value of the trade craft he is learning and encouraged to maintain or exceed the level of excellence of his superiors. Learning why something is the way it is can be just as important as the actual physical work itself.

If you think about it, a properly trained journeyman (that is one who has been through a full four or five year apprenticeship program) has more education in his field of endeavor than just about any other field of education or study, save medical doctors. 

The average MBA spends a few hours a day in class, some study time at home and on the weekends and that doesn’t include vacations, spring breaks and the like. The MBA also takes liberal arts courses which might broaden their societal education but do not directly apply to their major field of study. Compare that with an apprentice who spends 40 hours a week, every week (less vacation time of a couple of weeks a year) for four or five years, completely and totally immersed in his craft. He is working every single day to hone his knowledge and skills in that one field of endeavor. When it comes to intensive education you would be hard pressed to find a more thorough training program than a trade apprenticeship.

So it begs the question: Where have we dropped the ball and what can we do to get it rolling 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.