Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The value of a good plumber

Fewer and fewer young men (and young women) are going into the skilled trades. As our society has grown more technology-oriented, making a living with your hands has fallen into disfavor. Now, working in a climate-controlled environment, even if its in a cubicle, performing the modern-day equivalent of assembly line work, which is basically what today’s information workers are doing, still carries more prestige than an occupation where you might get dirt or grease under your fingernails.

Occupations like electricians, plumbers and other trades, such as heating and ventilation, are finding their workforce aging and today’s high school students set on a four-year degree, in liberal arts, business, or information technology. The orientation for the last 50 years, beginning with the returning GI’s from WWII, has been on obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

While there might have been a time when foregoing four years of earning power made sense, more and more, graduates of liberal arts programs are finding good paying jobs hard to find. In addition, many students are leaving private institutions with crushing levels of debt, resulting from student loans.

So, is a four-year degree necessary? According to Bert Schuster, executive director of National Tooling and Machining Association Training Center in Fremont, “There are people who just have a high school education and are doing very well.” Schuster points out that many machinists find their way into the occupation by going through the association's four-year apprenticeship program.

While many continue to beat the drum that manufacturing is going away, precision manufacturing continues to provide opportunities and great paying jobs for many young people coming out of two-year community college programs, or on-the-job training opportunities, such as apprenticeships. Even in a low-wage state like Maine, a journeyman machinist often earns more on average than a four-year college graduate, with many machinists making more than $55,000 to $60,000.

Machinists make parts that go into virtually any manufactured product—from from car engines to computers, from medical devices to kitchen appliances. States like Maine have many machine shops that manufacture components in such diverse fields as medical equipment, semiconductors, computer peripherals, communications, automotive, consumer durables, and even aerospace.

Which brings me to plumbing. There is nothing worse than needing the services of a plumber and not being able to access one. For someone like me, with very little mechanical acuity, I depend on people like plumbers to maintain my fixtures around my home.

Living outside, I have a well and a well requires a well pump. Over the 20 years that I’ve lived out in the country, my wife and I have experienced our share of issues with our well pump. Due to the iron in our water, periodically, we get a buildup in the pump and we begin having problems with the pump not shutting off. While I know how to manually shut the pump off, it becomes a headache and inevitably, it becomes necessary to place a call to the plumber.

We’ve had several plumbers over the two decades that we’ve lived here and they’ve all been the stereotypical tradesman that many people think of when the discussion turns to manual labor—difficult to schedule, undependable and with a tendency to overcharge and under-deliver.

About three years ago, we found a local gentleman who does plumbing part-time. While this can present challenges, as his business has grown and there are just so many hours in the day, he’s very good at calling us back and giving us a pretty accurate “ballpark” of when he’ll be able to get over. We’ve been fortunate not to have a plumbing emergency, so I don’t know what would happen in that instance. I do know that for routine problems, he’s been great. Professional, personable and surprisingly reasonable, price-wise.

With fewer and fewer people having basic skills to do plumbing, wiring and other basic repairs around the home, the skilled trades will continue to be in great demand.


Joe said...

You can't schedule 'em, 'cuz they all are more interested in subcontracting on new construction.

Julie-Ann said...

Hear, Hear!
We need a few less desk gerbils and a few more good mechanics, electricians, and plumbers.
All work has dignity!

Anonymous said...

I'm a licensed master electrician. Years back, I earned an associate degree in electrical technology as well as worked the pre-requisite 8000 hours in the field to sit for the master's exam. I admit, I sometimes do get dirty. However, I get a little rankled when my wife's best friend tells me I'm "just a blue collar worker" and I "could never understand complex social and economic issues". I guess that being a white collared cashier at LL Bean makes puts you quite high up on the food chain.

In addition, I'm a little bothered by the attitudes computer workers and engineers have toward trades people. I'm tired of being thought of as a "grunt electrician". I'm further tired of the computer types sitting in their Dilbert cubbyholes telling me the only thing I do is "turn wrenches".

I am currently working toward my BS degree. I want to be another Dilbert type working in an air conditioned office with an arrogant attitude. In one of my classes, we all had to introduce ourselves and present the reason why we were working toward a degree. One young kid pretty much out of high school said, "I want to get a degree so I won't have to do manual labor for a living." I just about wanted to rip the little turd's head off.