Just as there are stages of accomplishment in learning a skill, craft or trade, there are levels of expertise within those stages. Today, many things about the trades are changing and adapting to newer materials, equipment and techniques. Training, likewise, has morphed in the past twenty or so years into areas of specialization within areas of specialization. Teaching, and learning, an entire trade has been slowly replaced by teaching, and learning, only enough of the trade tasks and skills to fulfill a particular job. As an example, any ancillary education outside of, say, rodding (drain cleaning in today’s vernacular) a stoppage is accidental, in many cases. Once someone is taught how to use drain cleaning equipment, they are given a short course on stoppage clearing and basic drainage system installations and sent out into the world to ply their new skill with little, or no, understanding of the principles or designs of the whole systems that they work on.
Today, “tech” is the euphemism many shops use to denote their people. While “tech” has a nice ring to it in today’s digital world, it lacks the specificity of “plumber.” After all, a “tech” can be anything in any industry, but a “plumber” connotes a very specific and specialized skill set that most people immediately know and understand. I suppose that in today’s “everyone gets a participation trophy” society being called a “tech” gives one a sense of importance. It is, unfortunately, usually wholly out of proportion to the knowledge and skills of the person so designated. Learning a particular, narrow, set of skills does not make one a plumber any more than learning how to change a tire on your family car makes you an auto mechanic or changing batteries on a piece of electronic gear makes you an electronics engineer.
Knowing the whole trade and the systems we work with gives the plumber the ability to zero in on the offending problem quickly and accurately.
While painting with a broad brush about techs vs. plumbers is not my intent, it is symptomatic of the larger problem we in the trades have with recruiting, training and retaining good quality people. Why should it matter? My answer is, it matters because by breaking the trade down into small, comparmentalized pieces, we are diluting it. And if we keep on diluting it, it will eventually cease to be a trade and become a component like the interchangeable parts of a computer. No need to know what’s wrong with the mother board, just slap a new one in and keep going, even though knowing enough about the board could make repairing it a simple matter, saving money and time if the replacement is not immediately available.
Plumbers throughout history have been called plumbers, mechanics, journeymen and so forth. Also, entry level people were referred to as helpers, apprentices (1st year through 5th year) and such titles helped to bracket the level of training each had leading up to the coveted “journeyman” title. The historical reference to the term “journeyman” is significant, but has been lost over time. Above that title, there was (is) the coveted “master” honorific, denoting a skill level beyond the average and encompassing the total trade. All are something to take pride in.
All of which brings me to the main topic of this column, diagnostics. Knowing the whole trade and the systems we work with gives the plumber the ability to zero in on the offending problem quickly and accurately. Instead of replacing an entire unit, a knowledgeable plumber (or HVAC mechanic) can repair a system, piece of equipment or fixture rather than discarding the entire unit(s) and replacing it. That’s what your clients expect!
Diagnosing a problem within a system (large or small, it doesn’t much matter) and being able to repair it, and/or get everything back on line quickly and efficiently is where whole trade knowledge shines. Let’s use our drain cleaning tech as an example: without a total understanding of how drainage, waste and vent systems function, trying to clear a stoppage in a branch line can become an exercise in futility. Not knowing where to insert the cable (no cleanouts readily seen, etc.) to attack the blockage is only the beginning of the problem. Suppose the branch line serves more than one fixture, or the fixtures are back to back and the vent is offset and ties in to a stack and there is no trap into which you can insert the rod? Lots of variables to consider, but if you do not know how the systems are designed to work, and why they work, there is a good possibility that the tech is not going to know how to effect the service or repair.
Things like sizing water or gas piping is, in most cases, beyond the limited training of most techs these days. When a shower head or other fixture isn’t producing the appropriate volume of water, and calcification is not evident, pipe sizing is usually the culprit. Having seen plumbing remodels done by people who are not plumbers, where 15 to 20 fixture units are being roughed-in to be supplied by 1/2” PEX, I can only shake my head. Once those walls are closed, the problems will just be beginning.
Knowing the hows and whys of the systems we work with every day, and diagnosing problems using that knowledge comes from education, training and hands on experience. That’s what your customers expect from you when you or one of your people shows up on their doorstep or when you send your crew out to a job site. Scratching one’s head because the problem is particularly knotty is one thing, but being unable to properly diagnose the problem because of lack of education and trade knowledge is quite another. Instilling confidence in your client begins with you or your peoples’ own self confidence. A good, efficient diagnosis and solution highlights the ability of the tradesman and gives that confidence. Too often I see people working in our trade who haven’t the slightest idea of how to successfully complete a job beyond very narrow parameters.
Whether it is societal, economic or convenience on the part of employers, the lack of total trade education hurts us all. Insist on learning the whole trade, not just parts of it. It might not be easy but it will pay off in the long term and it will help keep our trade vibrant as we move into the 21st century.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a 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 protected].