Should plumbers have a college degree?

May is traditionally the month of college graduations. This month my daughter, Desiree, will graduate from the University of Miami with a double major in communications (public relations and sociology) and a minor in marketing. Desiree gave us four years of Miami Hurricane football and a warm place to visit during Chicago's long winters. I am a proud Papa of her accomplishments.

Leading up to her May 13 graduation date, I started thinking about the education responsibilities of the plumbing profession. As an industry, we have done quite well educating apprentices about the ins and outs of the plumbing profession. We have available some fine schools to train young women and men. But all too often we put them out in the trenches once their apprenticeship is complete and forget about any additional education.

Yes, it is true. Reading PM is an education. One that every plumbing contractor and apprentice should indulge in every month. But doesn't there need to be more?

At the annual IAPMO meeting last fall, George Bliss, the head of training for the UA, spoke on the UA's new program to provide a college degree, a Bachelor of Arts, for UA members. George has been a good friend for more than 25 years. Although we often are on different sides of minor arguments, we are friends because we both strongly believe in top-quality plumbing, the best education for the plumbing profession, and the protection of public health and safety.

George presented an interesting concept as he showed photographs of the first college degree ceremony. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense that plumbing contractors should have the opportunity to have a college degree.

Diploma Success

Hundreds of plumbing contractors I have met already have college degrees. Their degrees have included engineering, education, liberal arts, business, divinity, architecture and even law.

I have heard some comment that it is a waste of an education to have someone with a college degree end up in the plumbing business. I couldn't disagree more. What is wrong with having a highly educated plumbing contractor? Isn't that what we want in our profession? If someone loves the plumbing profession and has a college degree, how can it be a waste?

Not only is it good for the individual, it is good for your business. It is very beneficial to offer the most highly educated contractor to your customers. Just think of how far Mr. Goodwrench has gone in promoting the highest-educated auto mechanic. You can do the same.

What about the business side of business? Many years ago, I was having a conversation with Jim Sargent. At the time he was head of the plumbing code division for the state of Wisconsin. Jim was explaining to me about their new state requirements. To become a plumbing contractor, the individual had to pass a business test. I argued that such a requirement was unfair. How could the state impose such a requirement when the United States is the land of opportunity, and the “stimulus” for the entrepreneurial spirit?

Jim claimed that the state was not blocking anyone from fulfilling his or her dream of owning a plumbing business; it simply wanted to make sure he or she was successful. Knowledge in the trade and how things go together was not enough to run a business. It started to make sense.

Then he explained the burden on the state when a plumbing contractor fails in business. The employees of the company are without a job and they need to collect unemployment compensation. That costs the state money. Suppliers don't get paid. That can have a detrimental effect on their profits and future investments. It could also cause a supplier to go bankrupt. Jim continued explaining the domino effect if a plumbing company failed and what it does to the economy.

OK, so I started to agree with him. But how does one go about learning how to read a P&L statement, or understanding how to determine overhead, etc.? Of course, a college education doesn't hurt. Some of the largest and most successful plumbing companies are lead by individuals with MBA degrees. That makes sense, since running a plumbing business is the same as running any business - you need to know the business side of the business.

So, should every plumbing contractor have a college degree, and should it be offered in plumbing? I like the idea. Perhaps more colleges should look at the possibilities of offering a degree that takes into account the plumbing profession. The apprenticeship training should count for a part of the requirements for that degree. After all, it is an education after high school.

Owners should be encouraging their employees to continue their education. Whether it is a college degree or continuing education, you cannot stop learning in this profession. There is always something new to learn. The beauty of an education is that once you have it, no one can take it away.

A few companies have a tuition reimbursement program whereby the employees have part or all of their tuition paid for by the company. I am a big fan of these programs. I like the partial payment program a little bit better, even if it is just a small amount. If you have to pay for part of your education, you tend to be more responsible in obtaining that education. Some companies go so far as reimbursing all of the tuition once the courses are completed (on a semester basis). Again, not a bad idea.

I applaud the UA for creating its bachelor degree program. Its time has come. I hope the nonunion sector of the profession follows suit and pushes the concept of a bachelor degree for all plumbing contractors.

To all the mothers and fathers out there who have children graduating from college this month, I offer my congratulations to you and your children for a job well done. To Desiree, congratulations! You have made me very proud to be your father. I know you will do your best in whatever direction your life takes you.