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The Limits of Technology

Nov. 18, 2019
The human factor in all of this new technology is not, in my opinion, being given enough weight.

Reading trade publications today, including this magazine, one would think that advances on the technology front are making everyone’s job so easy that you could almost do away with the workers. Or if not do away with those pesky craftsmen, at least leash them so tightly that one errant move not programmed will be immediately reported to Big Brother. I am referring to recent articles touting AI and fleet traffic management used in controlling scheduling, call time, driving (including drive time, speed, etc.). I don’t know about you, but it sure seems like 1984 is becoming reality.

While I realize that tighter controls mean greater productivity and greater profit, I think that there is a point of diminishing returns that is not being considered. The human factor in all of this new technology is not, in my opinion, being given enough weight. It is empirically true that we have a tremendous lack of high-quality labor entering the trades. That problem might be exacerbated by the various new “tools” used by management to control every facet of the work environment. While it is hard enough to get good quality, well-trained journeymen, or even apprentices in America today, how much harder will it be if individual craftsmanship is put in an AI box? It won’t be long, I’m afraid, before each journeyman will be required to justify his work, i.e.  “Why did you use eight elbows when you could have used six?”

If you’ve read my columns over the years, you know that I am a strong proponent of traditional trade craft. That being said, allow me to dust off my soapbox once more. There will never be a machine that can do what a human can do vis-a-vis the plumbing/mechanical trades. You might quibble that eventually there might be androids or some other robotic creations that would be able to mimic the trade skills I am referring to, but I’m willing to bet that it won’t happen in the next 100 or so years, if ever.

Individual skill and creativity is being placed below “control” in the corporate milieu and I think it’s going to backfire, big time. Granted, this is partially a reaction to the appalling lack of qualified people in the work force, and management has to do something to get a handle on less than top notch people, but it is a short-term solution to a pressing, long-term problem. Speaking as a master plumber I can tell you how I’d react to being corralled electronically and being second guessed or made to justify every decision because it didn’t fit a prescribed set of parameters. I’d quit, and probably sell my skills to the highest bidder that didn’t use that type of systemic control or go out and find work on my own! Individuality is the reason many craftsmen come to the trades. I refuse to believe that a quality craftsman’s signature work can be duplicated, quantified and categorized by algorithms.

AI and computers can do an amazing number of things, but as of this writing, they cannot duplicate trade and manual skills no matter how powerful and far reaching they may be or become. At some point, there is going to need to be someone “in the trenches spinning the wrenches” and technocrats, programmers and purveyors of this new tech, as well as management, had better take note of that fact.

A friend of mine who is a long haul trucker, is constantly bemoaning the new technology that incorporates GPS and AI into routing, delivery, time and fuel, as well as rest time and drive time. While there are obvious monetary advantages in his industry, the human factor is ignored. In fact, with the advent of self-driving vehicles, it is likely that in the next 50 years truckers will be replaced entirely. Every facet of my friend’s time behind the wheel, the route he chooses to take, where he stops for fuel, to eat or to sleep is controlled and programmed by the front office. If he deviates from any of the parameters, like stopping for a few hours at his nephew’s soccer game en route to some city or other, he will have to justify himself to Big Brother. He is a good trucker, skilled and very accomplished, with many years of over the road experience. His reaction to this new paradigm is that he will retire early from a job he loves because, “They treat us like robots. We have no flexibility that we don’t have to justify. I’ve got 35 years behind the wheel and they treat me like I’m a novice who needs to be kept on a tight leash.” Profits over people is a losing strategy in the long term.

We are experiencing historic problems in recruiting, training and retaining people who want to learn the trades and who will make careers in them. In part, it is the lack of vocational education being made available to prospective recruits at a young age, but it is also a societal problem in that many young people have not only lost the desire to learn a trade, they seems to have lost the desire to work at all. Given the current lack of focus on a trade career, and given that most young people do not care to extend themselves to find work, how then can we expect to lure smart, independent minded people into looking at the plumbing/mechanical trades as a good, well-paying career? 

Finding, let alone hiring, people who have the interest, drive and ability to dedicate themselves to learning the trades is difficult enough in today’s world. Why stifle them with, in my opinion, electronically generated, rigid controls and specific demands that do not translate into learning the trade? People who have an agile, flexible mind, and who want to learn the trades, are a rare commodity. Let’s not forget that AI, GPS and computers are not installing that piping or repairing those fixtures in the field, it is craftsmen. To diminish those skills and put them in a box for the sake of efficiency, again in my opinion, is the wrong approach.

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].