Should there be a dress code for trade workers?

A while back, an online forum included a post from a vo-tech instructor expressing disgust with the attire worn by many budding plumbers and HVAC technicians who attend meetings and trade shows. The letter writer complained about them “wearing baseball caps, jeans, un-tucked T-shirts and on a few of the faces the ‘proud street gangsta’ look. I would not hire one of these so-called ‘leaders of tomorrow’ to sweep out my garage,” bemoaned the instructor.

Dozens of industry citizens weighed in with opinions on this topic. They were about equally divided between those in solidarity with the disgusted instructor and those of the “chill out” frame of mind.

This topic touches upon the ancient quest to upgrade the image of our industry. My research on industry history found its leaders addressing this subject as far back as the 19th century. That it’s still being widely discussed points to a lack of progress surpassing even that of the Chicago Cubs’ quest for a World Series victory.

After decades of attending industry trade shows, I’m quite familiar with the look described by the disgruntled instructor and will not take issue with his dim view of it. But I’m more inclined than many others to cut the offenders some slack.

Face it, the work done on construction jobsites or in grungy basements does not lend itself to fashion statements. Yes, a case could be made that trade workers should make an effort to tidy up before attending a product show or educational program. On the other hand, let’s understand that trade workers attend these functions mainly on working days, and many do not have a reasonable opportunity to change clothes before heading to the event.

Some, on the other hand, may have such opportunity but not the wherewithal. And that brings us to the crux of this issue.

Bowling Alleys Vs. Country Clubs

People brought up in the blue-collar world have a different mindset than the country-club set. To us, appearances are superficial and secondary to character. Many folks who complain about the personal appearance of those who do their dirty work reek of snobbery.

If this son of the working class had his druthers, business casual would encompass sandals, shorts and T-shirts, a mode of dress unsurpassed for maximum comfort on a hot summer day. It strikes me as downright idiotic to wear a suit or sport coat when the sun is on a power trip, and I think whoever invented ties should’ve been strangled with his/her invention.

So goes wishful thinking. In the real world, few of you who have ever met me in person have seen me dressed in the preferred manner. That’s because it’s likely our encounters would have taken place at business or social functions, for which I defer to prevailing dress codes. Being underdressed when everyone else is looking slick leads to psychic discomfort that’s even worse than being burdened with extraneous clothing.

Many of the youngsters working in your businesses haven’t yet had time to pick up on these social cues. They are in need of some mentoring.

Those of you concerned about the image of your trade in the eyes of the public would do well to establish a dress code for your workers - field and office staff alike. If the issue really bugs you, buy them uniforms.

Service companies in particular face a mandate to do this. Never mind the image of the industry. It simply makes good business sense. Progressive service contractors understand the importance of a positive image and many supply uniforms for their service technicians to wear. It verges on senseless not to do so.

Uniforms are less common in construction work and not nearly as essential, except for safety-related attire. Jeans and T-shirts - as long as they are accompanied by safety goggles, protective shoes and hard hats - are appropriate apparel for construction crews who don’t need to impress anyone with their looks.

It’s not a bad idea, however, to make some clean-up provisions for any field workers you send to trade shows and other business-related functions, along with some instruction on the importance of adhering to business and social norms. Many of them have not spent a lot of time rubbing elbows with business sophisticates, and they simply don’t understand what’s expected in different settings. You’d be doing them a favor to clue them in, as well as giving a little boost to the image of your company and your industry.