People let out a whistle when they hear about triple-digit hourly fees charged by lawyers, business consultants and sundry white-collar specialists. But observe them closely when the subject comes up. They don't accuse the practitioners of ripping them off. They are more awestruck than disdainful. They don't like paying through the nose for those services but accept it as the way the world operates.

It's only when the plumber and other trade workers present their bill that blood boils and stinging jokes fly. I'm not talking only about the flat raters who build $200+ hourly labor rates into their job prices. Most people think the time and material plumber billing labor at $50 an hour is taking unfair advantage of them.

Blue-collar bias is endemic to our society. We can see it in the different work rules and amenities. Hourly workers get docked for taking personal time off, while salaried staffers typically get cut some slack. Office clerks get free coffee, phone privileges and clean restrooms, while skilled craftsmen make do with vending machines, pay phones and port-o-potties.

Back in the early 1990s, the media was filled with teary stories about layoffs of corporate managers amid the restructuring of our economy. Journalists could identify with their pain while never giving a second thought to layoffs as a fact of life among construction and factory workers.

High school counselors everywhere advise students they have better futures as third-rate paper shufflers than as craftsmen. And check out the scholarship offerings. See how many are available for trade education vs. college.


Have I made my case yet? I could go on for pages detailing the short-shrifting of the blue-collar world, but I'm preaching to the choir. All of you know what it's like to be treated as second-class citizens. More significant than personal affront is the damage blue-collar bias does to your trade and your industry. Two repercussions in particular stand out.

1. You have a devil of a time attracting talented young people to your trade.

2. You have a devil of a time getting paid full value for the difficult, dangerous and indispensable work you do. This second problem causes the first in that it depresses the pay scales for skilled craft workers, who would be more willing to put up with blue-collar indignities if they were adequately compensated for it.

Devaluation of the trades has gotten progressively worse over recent decades. When I was growing up, a high school education was a notable intellectual milestone, and fewer than a third of the work force went to college. Now, more than half of the work force has at least some college, although there's been so much dumbing down of admission standards and curricula that many college degrees today don't signify any more learning than a high school diploma of yesteryear. Nonetheless, most parents would rather see junior get a sheepskin from a third-rate college than acquire a skilled trade from the best vocational school or apprenticeship program.

What To Do?

The industry's great task is to overcome this image problem and do what it takes to bring back pride and prosperity to your trade. Here are some suggestions:

1. Sell the glamour of construction.

Glamour? Am I nuts?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Observe how many people spend their lunchtime at a construction site watching a building go up. Construction projects are complex feats of design, engineering, machinery, ingenuity and hard work - a fascinating blend of brawn and brains. Best part for participants is they get to see the fruit of their labor for decades to come, even as long as they live in many cases. Construction people can take their children and grandchildren to see what they created.

What's more, the need for these skills will never disappear. Work may ebb and flow with the economic cycles, but people always will need buildings and their systems of plumbing, heating and cooling. Even when construction slows down, plenty of maintenance and repair work needs to be done.

Any marketing person who can't romance these elements ought to look for a different line of work.

2. Instead of damning the flat raters, imitate them.

Flat rate pricing is about more than charging great gobs of money for plumbing services. It's about presentation. The best flat rate firms are dressing their people up in sharp uniforms, training them in customer service, sending out trucks anyone would be proud to have his name on and leaving the work site cleaner than when they found it. Many of their service techs earn twice the industry average of around $35,000 a year, which is what's needed to attract high caliber people to the job. All of this sends a message of professionalism and value, which in turn justifies higher prices.

Put aside the pricing issue. Just do what the flat raters do in the way of projecting a positive image, then add up the costs and build them into your pricing structure. If you can charge less than the flat rate "rip offs" and still make money, then do it. That's competition at its best.

But please stop abusing the public, and soiling the industry's reputation, by sending out on house calls a bunch of antisocial plumbers whose main redeeming feature is their willingness to put up with onerous working conditions for 35 grand a year or less.

3. Recruit college students and graduates.

More and more apprenticeship programs are discovering high schools to be a dead end. Even kids who have an aptitude for trade work tend to be driven away from it by peer pressure, parents and counselors.

Seek them out in junior colleges and universities after they've tasted the academic world and decided whether it's to their liking. You'll find many of them feeling miserable and looking for alternatives. Parents who would have felt like failures a couple of years ago if their child didn't go to college may support an alternative to seeing their money frittered away in failing grades and fraternity hijinks.

Even many college graduates may find the trade a welcome option compared with the dead-end white-collar jobs that await those who were slacker students. Older, educated apprentices hold a lot of potential for your firm and the industry as a whole, and well-educated plumbers are a perfect antidote to blue-collar bias.

4. Stir the entrepreneurial juices.

One of the best, and perhaps most underused recruitment pitches, is the opportunity available in the trades to own one's own business. Small companies dominate the PHC marketplace, and entry barriers are tiny compared with many other businesses.

Before doing this, though, it would be good for the industry's contractor licensing agencies to step up the requirements for business training. Most have none, and those who do have minimal standards. The last thing the industry needs is more master craftsmen forsaking what they do best and opening up shop, lacking any clue to what it takes to service customers and make a profit.