Slovenly attire. Beat-up truck. Tools kept together by duct tape. Working in unsanitary conditions. And that plumber’s butt crack. These negative images, unfortunately, still pervade many minds in the public of who plumbers are and what they do.

This month’s cover story on page 30 highlights efforts made by national groups, as well as individual contractors, to change that perception of the dirty, unkempt plumber to the professional plumber that is today’s reality. OK, yes, some plumbers and heating technicians still embody that stereotype. But those are the exception to the rule.

The professional plumber not only has the latest technology to get to a service call on time and with the right equipment and parts to get the job done, he also is well-versed on the newest technologies that are part of plumbing today. Walking down the aisles at this year’s AHR Expo in Chicago, I couldn’t help but see all the boilers and water heaters with sophisticated computer technology to make not only installation and service better, but provide homeowners and business owners more information on their heating systems in order to better use them.

Energy efficiency is still the game, and technology is helping manufacturers offer better products to help their customers save money while maintaining or improving performance.

On the plumbing side, technology is used to conserve more and more water while providing an exceptional user experience — such as a shower head that uses less water but feels just as luxurious as higher-flow models. The severe drought in the Western states is making water conservation a critical issue. (You can read about California’s reaction to the drought here).

All this technology requires knowledge to design, install, maintain and repair these systems to keep the water flowing and the heat on. And the plumber of old is not the guy to do it.

Today’s plumbing and mechanical systems take a keen mind and problem-solving skills. As Dennis Langley, who oversees the MCAA’s Mechanical Contracting Education & Research Foundation internship grants program, says: “We fight image all the time, trying to dispel an image that doesn’t reflect where the industry is today. This is not your grandfather’s mechanical system. We’re now technology leaders. Generals qualify whole construction teams based on what their mechanicals can bring to the table.”

You can help dispel that negative image in your communities by attending career days and job fairs at local high schools. You also may want to invite school administrators and parents into your shop so they can see what plumbers and heating technicians do to install and maintain modern plumbing and heating systems. 

In Chicago, the local plumbing union is helping area Boy Scouts troops to earn their plumbing merit badges. It sets up stations at one of its training centers, manned by apprentices, so the Scouts can perform the tasks needed to complete the badge.

It’s a great recruiting tool, notes Thomas Jennrich, instructor in charge at the Plumber’s Local Union 130 training center in Volo, Ill. Boys already interested in plumbing learn more about the trade and talk with those who are working on jobsites. Parents and troop leaders learn that the trades do have a true career path with good pay and benefits.

Plumbing and heating businesses need to have the right tools in place to bring young people into their companies, says Renee Cardarelle, executive director of the Nexstar Legacy Foundation. “This is a critical area of development,” she explains. “In 10 years, these companies are not going to have those experienced people anymore. If they’re not ready, they’re going to be behind the ball. They’re not going to survive.”

To help improve your business and make it one that a young person or anyone would want to work at, a listing of associations and best practices groups can be seen here. These groups offer marketing, advertising and recruiting resources to help you emphasize the professionalism of the industry and attract the right people to your company.

The time to act is now — the need for qualified, skilled workers in the plumbing and heating industries is too great, and will become a larger issue as the economy strengthens, construction increases and more workers retire. Take some of the ideas presented in this issue and do something in your community to advance the professional perspective of the plumbing and heating trades.  

Partner with other trades or trade unions in your area to work with the Boy Scouts or other youth organizations such as Youthbuild — or create a trade school if there isn’t one in your area.

The point is, do something now. You can’t afford to wait.

This article was originally titled “It’s all about perception” in the May 2015 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.