Plumbers vs. Technicians: The Slow Decline of the Tradesman

WWETT Show presenter says apprenticeship model still best way for plumbers to grow their business
Plumbers vs. Technicians: The Slow Decline of the Tradesman

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Anja Smith, managing partner of All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina, has been involved with the company since its inception in 2012, joining the business full time in 2015. All of All Clear's plumbers have at least 10-years experience and/or a journeyman's license.

A guest presenter at WWETT 2016, Smith is a firm believer in the apprenticeship model and will explain why the “technician” title is harming the industry. Her session,  Plumbers vs. Technicians: The Slow Decline of the Tradesman, runs from 11 a.m. to noon Friday, Feb. 19, in rooms 133-135. She also will cover tax benefits and government assistance available for companies with an apprenticeship program and how to incorporate those programs in marketing efforts.

Q: Anja, what do you see as the main differences between plumbers and technicians?

A: For me, a plumber is a career path and everything that is implied with that. Our plumbers have at least a journeyman’s license or are in the apprenticeship program. To me, that’s a crucial difference. A huge part of a plumber’s job, especially in service plumbing, which is what we do, is critical thinking and problem-solving.

Q: How would you define a technician?

A: A technician is someone who sees this as a stop-gap job. They’ve been taught how to use a drain cleaning machine or they might know how to install a water heater; you can learn that from a YouTube video. A plumber who is licensed and dedicated to the craft is going to have a greater depth of understanding.

Q: In your presentation you say companies can leverage the difference between plumbers and technicians in their marketing. How do you do that at All Clear?

A: One of the things we say is, “Why would you hire a technician when for the same price you can get a plumber?” The analogy we like to use is, “If you’re going to go in for an operation, would you like to have a surgical technician do the procedure or a surgeon?” There’s an implied level of education and systemic understanding of the industry. I think the analogy holds up very well.

Q: We know it’s difficult to find qualified employees. How serious is the labor problem?

A: The numbers are horrifying. A third of the current labor pool will be leaving in the next seven years. The average age of a master plumber is about 58. Where am I going to be 10 years from now? If I don’t create that workforce, it’s not going to be there.

Q: How does the technician model contribute to this growing labor shortage?

A: The way a technician model is set up where I’m working for a commission, I can’t take the time to teach a guy. I’ve got to get in and out of there, get my job done, and go on to the next one.

Q: What does the apprenticeship model mean for the future of your business?

A: If you’re not investing in your employees to help them learn and grow as individuals, how do you plan on being in business? Once my dad retires, if I can’t hire a master plumber, I don’t have a company. If we don’t have anyone who’s on track to become a master plumber, I’m out of business. It’s kind of out of necessity.

Q: Aren’t there disadvantages to the apprenticeship model?

A: Oh, sure. It’s expensive. You’re hiring process is crucial. You’re taking a big leap of faith that this typically green kid is going to want to see this though. It’s a commitment not unlike college, but you’re also giving that person a job and paying them for that time while they’re learning. There’s a huge amount of upside for the apprentice and there’s huge amount of risk on the business side.

Q: Despite the risks, the apprenticeship model seems to be working for you. You’ve added a truck a year since 2012, how have you been able to this?

A: We’ve done that pretty much by word-of-mouth, by being vocal about our apprenticeship model – we don’t have technicians, we have career plumbers – and being involved in our community. That’s what’s helping us grow. If you just want to make as much money as you can so you can retire to Florida – yes, hire technicians. Our goal is to create jobs for our community.

Q: What do you hope WWETT Show attendees will take away from your presentation?

A: We’ve got some serious work to do to fill the jobs that are coming down the pipeline. If we as industry leaders and business owners don’t take on that task, no one will do it for us. Schools aren’t going to do it for us. You cannot learn specialized service plumbing in a classroom. It may seem expensive. It may seem daunting. It may seem like there are days when you’re just spinning your wheels, but it’s critical for the safety, security and infrastructure of our country. Public sanitation has done more for humanity than nearly anything else, and we have to take care of that. It’s a critical job that deserves a lot more respect.


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