It’s not like we don’t deal with the real world every day. We do. The issue is how quickly, and how much our daily reality changes. We could all go on with the, “When I got into the trades…” stories, but that really doesn’t address the problems we are all facing today.
Let me begin by saying that I do not have any answers here. I have ideas and suggestions, but I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day exercise of “being in business.” If I were, I’d have to deal with things as they are, not as I would wish them to be. Such a perspective would, no doubt, be grounded in today’s reality and not the hypothetical. I, and our readers, would be every interested in hearing how you, the guys at the “tip of the spear” of our industry, are dealing with these issues and how you mitigate the problems. Problems like:
This issue is new to just about all of us. I cannot remember a time when common, every day material was “out of stock” or “unavailable until further notice.” Can you? Oh, sure, there were some specialty items that required pre-ordering, and there were always long-lead fixtures or equipment that had to be ordered in a timely manner so as to have them on hand when they were needed, but those issues pale in comparison to the outright lack of common, everyday parts and material needed to perform our work.
Since the trend over the past 25 or 35 years has been away from having stock on hand at the shop—or even on job sites—the issue of out-of-stock material has assumed a greater profile than it might have before.
A young(er) plumber I know was bemoaning the fact that he simply cannot get certain gas pipe and fittings, among other every day essential parts from his supply house or even at the big box stores! The fact that he even mentioned those big box stores as a place where he gets material was telling. He’s a small contractor and doesn’t have the room or the capital to keep much inventory, so he is at the mercy of “supply chain issues” as the media have dubbed the problem. He didn’t have an answer on dealing with it other than chasing around town to get what he needed, and trying to anticipate.
What are you doing to mitigate the problem? Let us hear from you. We are all in this together, so anything you do that works, and can help other shops to get through this problem is worthwhile sharing.
We all know about the problem getting new apprentices, and/or journeymen into the trades. This column has been beating the drum on the issue for almost 15 years. While there seem to be some bright spots on the horizon, are they too little and too late? The problem is not just plumbing and heating specific. All aspects of the construction industry are, and have been, experiencing the almost total lack of new blood coming into the trade.
While people like Dr. Douglas Greene (see November’s column) and others like him are making things happen, it seems that there is simply not enough momentum to carry the trades forward. Meanwhile, the graybeards are retiring at an alarming rate, and taking all their collective knowledge with them. There is only so much of the trade that can be learned from books. We in the skilled trades are facing an overall knowledge drain of unprecedented proportions.
The lack of interest in trade careers is a result of a perfect storm of misdirection by the media, the education establishment and well meaning (if short-sighted) parents. As well, no small amount of blame can be laid at the feet of the very young people who we are trying to entice into trade careers. Who would have thought that almost an entire generation, in America, would find the idea of “work” to be something to be avoided at all costs? Yet here we are in 2022 with that exact scenario in play.
Again, what are you doing to get people on board, and trained? Do you have a program that works? If so, please share! Where are you finding people? How do you motivate them? How do you retain them? We need to have as much information on this critical area as we can get. We are the ones who are going to have to fix this problem and not rely on others.
We are all holding our breath to see which direction our economy is going to go. With inflation on the rise and the Fed chasing it down with rate increases, it looks like the construction industry will be the first domino to fall. The run up on wood pricing during COVID will look mild in comparison to what is being predicted for the trades.
Are there any good answers out there on how to short circuit the looming crisis? How are your preparing your business to face the predicted recession?
As I said at the beginning of this column, we have to live and work in the real world. The issues that I have highlighted here are very real indeed. Looking to someone else to solve them is a fool’s errand. The one thing I know about those of you in the trades is that you are tough people. You are in a tough business. Most of you will not simply fold your tents and walk away. You will find answers to these issues, one way or another. I’m asking you to give us the benefit of that experience and knowledge and the stick-to-it-iveness that made you successful. I don’t know if publishing your tips and tricks is going to help very much, but it couldn’t hurt! As ol’ Walt Kelly’s Pogo Possum said many years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”
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@example.com.