With all of this talk of the new millennium, it seems like this year is flying by. Here we are in June already, a traditional month for graduations from high school. Millions of students have to decide between a job or more schooling. We expect children who are only 18 to figure out what they want to do for the rest of their life.
The one complaint that our industry has been voicing for many years is that not enough of our young people are entering the trade; they would rather work in cushy jobs banging at the keys to a computer. Did you ever stop to think why these kids choose computers over plumbing? Too many of us are saying, “This generation is just lazy; they would rather earn the big bucks doing nothing than working hard for their money.” But I couldn’t disagree more with this statement. I find today’s youth as hard-working and energetic as we were. Give them a task, outline the goals and off they go to do their job.
So why do they prefer computers to plumbing? I am convinced that teens like computers because they are constantly exposed to computers. Bill Gates has done a wonderful job. Most kids use a computer on a weekly basis in school. Many have one in their homes. Bill Gates keeps telling them that there is a way to make money using computers.
Computers vs.Plumbing?How much do we expose our teenagers to plumbing? Yes, they use the fixtures every day, but how many have ever experienced the thrill of installing a fixture? How many have had the opportunity to cut and join a piece of pipe?
I do a lot of training programs across the country. The alarming trend I have seen is the increase in the number of family members who are a part of the trade. Family members make up the vast majority of new plumbers. There is a simple reason for this; they have had the opportunity to experience the thrill and excitement of the plumbing profession. Most other teenagers do not.
This month is the time to change all of that. With school out, hire some teenagers as summer apprentices — regardless of whether you need help. Don’t think in terms of it costing you money because they aren’t skilled laborers. Think of it as a part of your civic duty. Give these students an opportunity to learn your trade this summer. Show them how much of their high school education is used in the plumbing profession.
Your First Day: If you think these kids are useless because they don’t know anything, think of your first day as a plumber. I remember being given a ruler, a level and two pencils to put in my side pants pocket. One of my father’s mechanics had me as his gofer. For my first assignment, I was instructed to cut a piece of 3/4-inch copper tube so many inches. Then I was to shine both ends of the pipe.
After a few minutes, Bernie came to see what was keeping me. I told him that I could not find any 3/4-inch pipe. I had found 5/8-inch pipe and 7/8-inch pipe, but no 3/4-inch. He looked at me as if I was an idiot and said, “It’s right here.”
I had learned my first lesson: The size of the pipe cannot be measured with a ruler. The plumbing industry has a unique way of sizing pipe called nominal, which means somewhere in the close proximity to the size we call it.
I progressed from there, listening, watching and learning. I also asked a lot of questions. Those teen years in the plumbing profession were very valuable to my education. I was lucky; my father owned the company. But my father also was a kind man to other teenagers. Besides having six sons to hire, he also hired many of the kids from the local high school. One summer seven teenagers worked for my father.
Looking back 30 years later, none of those seven ever became plumbers. A few, however, remained in the construction profession. They all learned the value of hard work. At least three of these former teenagers own their own businesses. All hire teenagers, and all continue to speak of their summers working for my father.
If you are worried about OSHA regulations, just use common sense. Teenagers under the age of 18 are not permitted on heavy construction sites. But we do a lot of work that does not include heavy construction. Let them ride around for a few weeks with a repair crew. If you are doing any sewer or underground water lines, there is always work around the trench for them to do — with little knowledge or skill required.
When your teenage interns begin, let them cut and ream pipe. For steel pipe, teach them how to thread the pipe. For copper, teach them how to solder. For plastic, let them solvent cement some fittings to pipe. You can always use a few extra hands on a jobsite.
When it comes time to do the finished plumbing, let teenagers unpack the faucet from the box and get it ready to install. Have them align the sink or faucet while someone else is lying under the sink making the connections.
Remember, however, that these are kids. They also like to play. So give them a chance to take some days off to go to the beach or pool. Let them enjoy their summer. If they need a week off to go to a sports camp or on vacation with their family, give them the time they request. The following summer, you will find these kids coming back and asking for a job again. Each year they will become more valuable and helpful to you. For $5-6 an hour, it is worth the risk. (And don’t forget that girls also make excellent plumbers!)
If you are against hiring high schoolers for the summer months, don’t complain that this generation is going to pot. It is our obligation to prevent them from going to pot, and the best way is to show them the ins and outs of our profession.