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 field labor.

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 need.

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 well.

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 accomplish.

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.