It's apparent where the future chiefs will come from, but how about the Indians?

Serendipity is a word that refers to making valuable discoveries by accident. It aptly describes an experience of mine last Feb. 28 while attending this year's MCAA convention in Phoenix.

I started to attend a seminar being held in a small room that overflowed. Extra chairs were brought in, and attendees were stuffed elbow-to-elbow. I hate crowded rooms, and felt guilty about taking up space that could be put to better use by an MCAA member, so I left just before the speaker started his program.

There were no other sessions of interest in that time slot, so I sauntered over to catch a glimpse of the Student Chapter Competition program just getting underway. I'd been aware of MCAA's Student Chapter program since it began in the late 1990s, but never paid much attention to it. That's because it started slowly, and there's always so much going on with this dynamic trade association, some of their activities inevitably slip below the radar.

I took a seat near the back, figuring to slip out unobtrusively if things got boring. Instead, I witnessed perhaps the most uplifting program of the convention.

The Student Chapter Competition involved the four finalists from among 14 chapters that participated in a contest to design and construct a fictitious but realistic mechanical system. This year's project called for a proposal to provide plumbing, HVAC and utility tie-ins for a 35,000-sq.-ft. dramatic arts building on a college campus in Denver. A completion date was provided, and the project teams had to cope with a Grand Prix auto race that would intrude on the campus for a couple of months in the project's early stage. They made their presentations to a panel of three MCAA members representing the GC, building owner and a college official. The panel asked follow-up questions of the project teams, and would select the winning proposal.

Each of the finalists - from the universities of Oregon State, Purdue, Nebraska and Washington - had a half dozen or more students role-playing typical project team personnel such as chief estimator, superintendent and so on. Stage jitters were less than might be expected from youngsters playing to an audience filled with scores of the nation's top mechanical contractors, and the content of the proposals was stunning.

Each group presented a different approach to system design, yet each seemed eminently workable. Quiet operation is essential to an HVAC system in a performing arts facility, and the project teams addressed that in their designs. A couple made an added effort to incorporate LEED green building principles into their proposals. The professionalism on display went beyond what one would expect from college students.

Project price tags ranged from a high of $1.375 million to a low of $820,000. It was the high bid, by the Oregon State Student Chapter, that ended up winning the contest, thanks to a particularly imaginative design.

After the first five minutes, I never gave another thought to leaving early. All of the presentations were captivating, and I went away from the program without a clue which team might win. What was clear is that the mechanical contracting industry is in good hands for the future. It's also clear that I need to start paying more attention to the MCAA Student Chapters, which had grown to 32 by the time of the convention.

Many Chiefs, Few Indians

If only things were going so well with the hands-on pipe trades. All evidence points to continued skilled labor crunch for tomorrow's contractors, maybe even worse than faced by today's. This has been perhaps the industry's biggest problem ever since the early 1990s, and despite numerous initiatives to boost apprenticeship recruitment among women, minorities and everyone else, success stories are rare.

Everyone in the pipe trades industry tells pretty much the same tale. High school counselors see the trades as career paths mainly for kids with discipline and academic liabilities. Unlike days of old, even plumbers and pipefitters tend to steer their kids toward college rather than become chips off the old block.

People involved in JAT programs also lament a general decline in the quality of recruits. I want to be careful here, because it's not my intent to insult the many high-caliber apprentices that surely exist in JAT programs around the country. Consider it acknowledged that there are many fine young people entering the trades. Yet, it's hard to ignore the many voices from both management and labor that talk about how they've had to “dumb down” their standards; about a widespread decline in work ethic. The UA is wrestling with the dilemma of an aging work force, and as the old pros retire, this issue becomes steadily more acute.

Ray Jung, a retired executive with Poole & Kent and one of the industry's most respected citizens, engaged me in conversation about this topic and, as usual, had some keen observations worth reporting. Ray keeps his hand in the business as a consultant (R.C.J. Consultants, 757/345-3307). I ran into him at the MCAA convention, and he made two salient points about apprenticeship recruiting.

First, one of the biggest selling points for JAT programs is that they offer an alternative to the six-figure student loan debts that many college graduates struggle with for years, or even decades, while trying to earn a living. Trade apprentices earn a living wage right from the beginning of training, and typically start their career journey debt-free. This comes as no revelation to JAT recruiters, of course, but in some cases the message may not be sold hard enough to kids who don't have well-heeled parents to pay their way through college.

Jung also said, “Work with the athletic directors of your local high schools. Talk to the football players.” He wasn't referring to the stars who go on to college and NFL glory, but the 90 percent of their teammates who will never again put on the pads after high school. They had to meet minimum academic standards to be eligible to play, they can handle the physical demands of pipe trades work, and they learned the self-discipline and teamwork that are among the most desirable traits for an apprentice. I suspect you may find fertile recruiting prospects in other sports as well as football.

In addition to athletes, the military offers fertile prospecting ground for future pipe trades craftsmen and women. Programs are already underway to tap that resource, although what I hear through the industry grapevine is that even there our industry tends to lag in sex appeal compared to other opportunities available to armed forces veterans.

Somehow, recruiters need to come up with an answer to this industry-wide dilemma. Many Geronimos and Sitting Bulls are waiting to grace the industry with their talents in the near future, but their leadership will go to waste without willing and able warriors.