End runs around craft labor make sustaining its value a priority.
A press release crossed my
desk recently about a new technology developed by Trane to automatically and
accurately provide certain of its systems with the correct refrigerant charge
at the push of a button. This notice got my synapses crackling with a larger
train of thought.
That is the recognition that this technology and so many others being developed
by plumbing and HVAC manufacturers end up reducing labor and skill requirements
in the field. Technicians put in many hours of training and experience to learn
the ropes of handling refrigerants, including the diagnostic component. Now it
can all be done at the push of a button, which a home or building owner can do
as well as a highly trained technician.
The press release conjured up memories of a visit a few years ago to the New
Products Pavilion at the ISH North America trade show. I toured the exhibit
with a contractor buddy of mine and asked him if there was anything being shown
that especially intrigued him. He observed that most of the items being
displayed were not so much new products as modular assemblies of existing components.
Manufacturers were moving toward packaged systems that reduce the need for
To a large extent this is an inevitable mark of progress in any industry, but I
believe the trend has been accelerated by the widespread shortage of skilled
craft labor. Faced with fewer reliable journeymen and technicians to install
and maintain the equipment, manufacturers have the choice of selling less stuff
or working around the problem.
Manufacturers aren’t the only ones who have figured out ways to deal with the
craft labor shortage. This issue has plagued mechanical contractors and the
construction industry in general for the last couple of decades, yet that time
frame coincides with the greatest sustained construction boom the United States
has ever seen. Somehow contractors have learned to get their jobs done with
fewer trade workers and/or people of lesser ability than they would seemingly
Necessity is the mother of invention, and our nation has achieved the largest
and most dynamic economy the world has ever seen thanks to the ingenuity of its
business community. Manufacturers overcome labor shortages by jazzing up their
technology, which also helps contractors do their jobs with less labor.
Contractors also have picked up some tricks of their own. They rely a lot more
on prefabrication and task specialization. And they have been forced to become
better project managers.
Many service contractors have adapted by emphasizing replacement, which
generally is simpler to learn (as well as more lucrative), over repairs that
typically require a wily technician to diagnose and fix. The more labor costs
rise the more sense this makes. Old-timers like me remember growing up in an
era when TV repair shops could be found every couple of city blocks. Now most
consumer electronics have become long-lasting disposable merchandise cheaper to
replace than fix. Plumbing and HVAC products are moving in that direction as
In the bad old days, labor unions used to purposely restrict the supply of
labor and wrap it in a featherbedded cocoon. Only a handful of dinosaurs still
think that way. Their struggle today is not so much to preserve craft jobs as
find people capable of performing them. It is the value of those jobs that
needs to be protected.
For about the last quarter century, people in our industry have been beating
their heads against a wall trying to figure out how to recruit more talented
young people to the pipe trades. Various gimmicks have been tried, but nothing
has had much impact.
Maybe they’re on the wrong track. Maybe it’s time to focus on quality rather
than quantity. Treat the pipe trades like the U.S. Marine Corps, accessible
only to the few and the proud, i.e., the best and brightest mechanically and
technologically adept youngsters.
Today’s pipe trades are as much about working with CAD/CAM and computerized
diagnostics as it is about wielding wrenches and torches. As with the Marines,
you only need a handful to accomplish your mission, but you better train them
to the hilt to produce what otherwise would take 10 ordinary people to
Pay scales would go up accordingly, and once six-figure incomes become the norm
for pipe trades workers, you would see apprenticeship programs enhancing their
curricula rather than dumbing them down.
August 1, 2008