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Blue-Collar Hope

I'm writing in regards to Jim's recent editorial ("Blue-Collar Bias," February 2001), and I'll start by saying, "Amen." There is a ray of light out there! The F.A.T.E. I (Foundations in Apprenticeship Training Experiences) Program is designed to introduce students to eight different trades in their junior year of high school.

The F.A.T.E. II program is designed to narrow down choices. The curriculum dedicates one full semester on each of the following trades: plumbing, electrical, carpentry and masonry. F.A.T.E. II is for the students who are interested in taking the second portion of the program in their senior year. Paid internships during the summer will be available and those hours can be credited toward state-approved apprenticeship programs if the student enters one of them.

The program is set up to be extremely versatile for any type of school, time constraints, and/or budgets. The curriculum was written by a couple of teachers at Bayside Community Day School. The F.A.T.E. Advisory Committee was made up of representatives from: Riverside Community College, Associated Builders and Contractors, Continental Plumbing Inc., Associated General Contractors, Masonry Industry Training Association, Canyon Springs H.S., March Mountain H.S., and the Moreno Valley Unified School District.

This program is experimental at this point, but it has all the potential to literally change current public views on the trades. To make a difference, it will take contractors, educators and industry leaders, and do something about this issue that affects our entire construction industry.

Continental Plumbing Inc. shares your point of view on the public's opinion on the trades, especially plumbers. We have been actively trying to educate the youth in local high schools, class by class. The presentation I give not only promotes plumbing apprenticeship as a viable alternative to college or the military, but also dispels many myths associated with plumbing in general.

I have found that it is educational for not only the students, but teachers as well. Unfortunately, we seem to be the only plumbing contractor willing to get out in the community and do this. I mention this not to brag, but to let you know there is a need for this type of positive representation, with what is sure to be our future work force.

Our company puts heavy emphasis on training by sending our entry-level employees through the Associated Builders and Contractors state-approved apprenticeship program. The apprentices are on a very progressive pay scale and have an extremely attractive benefit package. Training at Continental is ongoing, even at our journeyman, foreman and project manager levels.

Proof that all this training pays off is that Ryan McGuire, one of our fourth-year apprentices, took home first place at the ABC 2001 National Craft Olympics, held in San Antonio, Texas. The competition was a two-hour written exam and a six-hour practical application test where the competitors had to plumb fixtures in a wall. He competed against 20 other plumbing apprentices from all over the United Sates.

What makes this even more special is that Ryan is the first apprentice to bring home first place at the national level for ABC Southern California Chapter out of the plumbing, carpentry and electrical training programs. Between winning first place at the local and national levels, Ryan won a huge trophy, a gold medal, a Hewlett Packard computer, power tools and $3,500.

I truly hope you can use this information to get the word out, that continually having positive representation of the plumbing and mechanical trades along with training, is essential to providing a qualified future work force.

Michael Littlejohn
Continental Plumbing Inc.
Mira Loma, Calif.

Editor's Note: For more information on the F.A.T.E. program, contact Carol Allbaugh, coordinator, career development, Moreno Valley Unified School District, 909/485-5600 ext.2314; e-mail:

Don't Go With The 'Going Rate'

I doubt Frank Blau would remember me, but from 1994-1997 I was his representative for a faucet manufacturer. I'm still with the same company, now covering Alabama and part of Florida, but I probably wouldn't be if it wasn't for the knowledge I gained from Frank on my very first visit to Blau Plumbing in 1994.

As I read his column ("Who Pays The Price For The Going Rate?" April 2001), I felt like he really hit the nail on the head describing victim No. 2 (the supplier). Collecting from my customers is probably the most difficult part of my job (with a few exceptions). Many of my customers buy from whomever they might be current with at that time. While I make a very comfortable living, if I had 20 more customers that subscribed to Frank's thinking almost all of my job stress would be gone.

After moving to Birmingham in 1997, I decided things were going to have to change. At the time, I had one C-2000 member in Birmingham. He was the only one flat rating. I decided I needed to get more of my customers doing what he was doing. So I began preaching Frank's philosophies to any plumber who would listen.

I now have 13 customers in the city who are basing their flat rate prices at or above more than $150 an hour. They are all among the busiest plumbers in the city and are still growing. We now have three C-2000 members. These customers will be the first to admit it wasn't easy, but it has been the best business decisions they've ever made. Now they pay their bills much easier, most taking discounts, and it's a pleasure to service their accounts.

Frank told me in 1994 that everyone was always telling him, "I can't get those kind of prices in my city." Next time someone says that to you, tell them they're getting those prices in Birmingham, Ala.

Name withheld upon request

Reprint the article every year. No, reprint it every month! I don't know, maybe it's me. Maybe it's because I'm a high school dropout and ex-long haul trucker. Maybe it's because I couldn't sweat two pipes together or install a faucet if my life depended on it.

I started my business in 1995 with nothing, not knowing anything about plumbing and heating. No acquisitions either (hell, I can't even spell it). All I had was one truck and one employee who knew something about plumbing and heating. I read articles by Frank Blau and Maurice Maio, joined an association, and most importantly, used my common sense.

Today, we are budgeted for $3 million at a pretax net profit of 15 percent. Oops, I forgot to tell you how many trucks I have! After all, that's how we're supposed to describe our business, isn't it? I love this business. It's so simple. Why can't every contractor understand your philosophy of doing business? Why don't they want to be the best service provider, highest-paying, best place to work in their market?

What holds so many back? Is it the paradigm that goes, "I can't afford my own services so neither can anyone else?" As a result, I'll work my ass off year after year after year for nothing. I don't get it! Why is profit a dirty word to these guys? Don't they understand that profit is their return on their investment and risk? Don't they understand that profit is where bonuses, profit sharing and growth come from?

Why don't they understand it costs money to provide the best service to their customers and that the customer has to pay for it? Why is it they won't accept the fact that they are not going to serve every customer that calls because not every customer is willing to pay for excellent service?

Why do they take the price objection as a personal attack, and drop their prices to exclude profit and usually a good chunk of the overhead necessary to provide the excellent service to the 40 percent of the market that is willing to pay?

Why don't they just concentrate on the 40 percent, and give the rest of the Home Dumpo crowd to their competitors and stop worrying about the big boxes? How come they don't see the positive side of the "Big Boxes" who are weeding out all the "do-it-yourselfers" for us? (Some of these folks have become our best customers after they have totally screwed up their project and we come and rescue them, usually helping them save face to their wives.) Why do they wait until the end of the year to see if they made any money (those who know they're supposed to make money, of course)?

Oh well, maybe I'm screwed up - I put profit first in my budget. I treat it as an expense; it goes on the top of the list for payment, like taxes, I take it first so that the budgeted expenses get forced into line without losing profit. My people get their bonuses and spiffs, I get my minimum 10 percent net on return and it works like a charm.

I guess I'm just lucky that I really didn't know any other way to do business, because I had no preconceived notion about how it should be done because I never did the hands on part of it. I have always had the benefit of seeing it objectively.

I don't wish these guys would "get it" because it would make my business easier; I wish they would get so they could have the joy that comes with the rewards of doing it right.

Bill Jones
Jones Services Co., LLC
Goshen, N.Y.

NSPC Is Very Much A Code Worth Using

As the chief plumbing inspector of Ocean City, Md., and vice president of the Maryland Plumbing and Mechanical Inspector's Association, I take exception to Julius Ballanco's column on codes, "2001 - A Code Odyssey," February 2001, in which Mr. Ballanco refers to the National Standard Plumbing Code as "not being much of a code."

Our association, consisting of plumbing and mechanical inspectors from across the state, obtained copies of all the popular model code books, appointed a committee, studied and debated the various codes with open minds. We then met with contractor associations for their input. We had meetings with people representing different codes and considered their views.

This association then voted overwhelmingly to send a letter to the Maryland State Plumbing Board recommending adoption of the 2000 National Standard Plumbing Code Illustrated for several reasons. We felt this code was the easiest code to interpret by not only the code official, but the contractor as well. The other codes seemed more concerned with being overly technical and used a lot of engineering that gets so confusing I doubt the authors understand it.

It is our association's belief that the 2000 NSPCI gives maximum protection to the most important part of this equation - the consumer. I am not sure how code adoption is obtained in other areas, but I can tell you in Maryland it is taken very seriously with input from everyone involved including, once again, the consumer, who is represented on the State Board of Plumbing.

In closing, I do strongly agree with Mr. Ballanco on one point: Contractors, inspection agencies and consumers should be involved in code adoption - politics should not.

Nelson J. Kelly
Maryland Plumbing and Mechanical Inspector's Association
Baltimore, Md.

'What Da' Continues

Editor's Note: In our December 2000 issue, we printed the following pictures of a contraption found by contractor Dan Dougan, Triple D Plumbing, Coffeyville, Kan. Although we received plenty of guesses, Dougan recently told us he still hasn't reached any definitive conclusions. Here are two more explanations:

This appears to be what is called a "cellar drainer," which works without electric power, but on water power. A company called Penberthy Pump Co. was one such manufacturer of such an item.

Tom Riley Jr.
P.J. Riley & Co.
Boston, Mass.

The unit is not as primitive as it may seem to someone who has done a lot of historical remodeling. What Mr. Dougan has found is a chamber pot waste disposer. If he had found the copper tank that would have been above it, it may have been easier to identify.

In the 1880s, the fastest and most unobtrusive installation of indoor plumbing was by using the chamber pot disposer. It had a teardrop tank that mounted high on a wall just like the pull chain gravity tanks of old. It used a 2-inch lead waste pipe for the ease of snaking it through the structures without excessive damage or alterations. The unit was extremely popular for inns and servants' quarters up until as late as 1910.

In 1991, I found a complete tank and vessel in a house in Springfield, Mo. It still had the shelf above it for the waste pots, plus a brass brush that was used to clean the pots.

I hope this can help you in the search. Although I am currently in jail, I will soon be back to plumbing for whoever will have me. I am only 34 years old, but I began plumbing at the age of 13 and have many years left to learn and teach.

John D. Fouts
Western Missouri Correctional Center
Cameron, Mo.