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An Emerging Trend in the Workforce

Jan. 11, 2019
Here we are in January of 2019, and we still, many of us, can’t man our job sites or even find people to train.

This column, and others, have been banging on about the lack of people interested in having a trade career for years. We talk about the non-existent work ethic of the so-called “millennial” generation, the inability to find, let alone hire and train, quality entry-level employees.

As far as I know, no one has come up with a viable solution to the problem for the long or even the short term. Here we are in January of 2019, and we still, many of us, can’t man our job sites or even find people to train. The problem is getting worse, not better, and even with the President’s push touting vocational education, there still are not nearly enough young people attracted to learning the trade.

We are focused (rightly so) on our own problems with manpower. But are we so focused on our own problems and how to solve them that we are missing industry shifts that could possibly make those problems exponentially worse in the future? I don’t know, but forewarned is forearmed.    

Given the present situation with apprentice acquisition, finding and keeping good journeymen is even more critical and paramount to getting the work done or even staying in business today. If you’ve got a guy who knows his stuff and can get the job done quickly, cleanly and even close to the estimated time and materials bid, you’re a lucky boss. Do you know that? Are you aware of the changes that are lurking over the horizon?  Read on... become aware and be prepared to stand and fight for your company, because the new paradigm in all the construction trades is multinational, digital and it’s looking to fill the hole in the proverbial dike that is not presently being filled. The real problem is that these companies are going to fill the dike with your best people.

What, you may well ask, am I talking about? I’ll tell you. The manpower issues we face are not lost on those people with whom we contract, and they are readily apparent to Mr. & Mrs. homeowner too, whether or not we think otherwise. While we are focusing on our internal manpower issues, the people we work for are casting about for ways to get their needs satisfied if we can’t manage it.

Your clients and customers are more aware than you think of the fact that you don’t have enough qualified help to get their job done in a timely, quality manner. Mr. General Contractor still has to get his project done, whether or not you can give him enough people to do it timely. Mrs. Homeowner still needs her water heater replaced and the guy you sent with full sleeve tattoos (no letters please) two-day stubble and torn sneakers does not give her the warm fuzzies, whether or not he’s a good mechanic.

They are looking for better, more reliable, alternatives. Alternatives that do not scare the heck out of them, either on a job site or when they come to the door. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the vacuum is about to be filled.

There are new firms emerging that are presently targeting upscale residential remodel but could easily expand to light commercial quickly. Their business model will severely affect many companies moving forward. These firms propose to become the one-size-fits-all contractor on a large scale, without using your company’s services. The plan is to build a firm that will contract for any work you may want to have done and then provide all labor, material and subcontract work in house.

I probably should have written this column in October — for Halloween — because it’s pretty scary story, truth be told.

I’m not talking about hiring ABC Plumbing & Heating, Inc. to do the work under their aegis. I’m talking about the company hiring the best tradesmen that they can to work directly for the company. They will lure your people with promises of higher pay, better benefits and so forth. These firms are extremely well funded and can absorb the startup costs associated with such a grand venture. The glittering agenda will sit well with their target market, as they will provide everything from architectural services, design and decorating services through to the finished project, a la HGTV.

The idea is to scour whatever state, or states, they decide to do business in for tradesmen. They will be looking for the best people they can find and will cull, I am quite sure, until they get the best of the available people. This process will encompass every trade required for a given job until the company has staffed itself with a full complement of skilled trades people for each trade.

“What about licensing?” you may ask. Because licensing varies from state to state, and even from county to county in many states, the company will locate, and hire, one qualifying party for each trade. That person would test for, and obtain, whatever licensing is required. Further, this qualifying party will be knowledgeable in his trade and be able to evaluate the hired tradesman and to act as overall supervision for their particular trade specialty. These “supervisory” qualifying parties would act as project managers directing the in-house tradesmen and also interact with inspectors and/or city officials if needs be.

I probably should have written this column in October — for Halloween — because it’s pretty scary story, truth be told. As if we don’t have enough problems finding and keeping good people, we now can look forward to having our best people head-hunted by an “Angie’s List” on steroids! Worse, many smaller firms in suburban and rural areas will not be able to compete with the lure of higher wages and benefits that the small firms simply cannot afford.

Tightening up your workforce and showing your people how much you appreciate them, now, could pay big dividends in loyalty down the road. The short version is, a tough situation just got tougher. Educate yourselves. Be proactive. Don’t get blindsided. Even if the stories I’m hearing are a bunch of nothing, your diligence will still pay dividends with your people.

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].

About the Author

Al Schwartz | Founder

Al Schwartz is a third-generatin master plumber from Brooklyn, N.Y. 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].