Following in the Footsteps

Younger generation learns a different way of managing job sites from the old-timers.

Following in the Footsteps

Anthony Pacilla

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One of the first things I learned from the “old-timers” was to keep a clean job site.

When I was an apprentice I swept, cleaned, organized tools, set out fittings, changed out the trash, vacuumed, dusted, etc. I did this for the entire eight-hour day. I felt I could be more useful and productive, but I didn’t realize until I was running my own jobs just how valuable the “ground man” — as the old-timers called the position — was.

There was a battle between the old-timers and the younger journeyman. The old-timers stressed keeping a clean job site during the entire installation process. The younger crew’s theory was to focus on the piping and clean up last. As ridiculous as this may sound, this was almost always the difference between a professional, quick, and profitable job and a lengthy, messy money pit.

The old-timers made a habit of paying attention to the details. They would take trash cans with liners on every job. Any excess pipe insulation, wire jackets and debris went into the trash. They had another different-colored trash can for scrap. Any excess metal got thrown into the scrap bin.

The ground man’s job was to keep everything clean and organized. He would make sure all batteries went straight to a charger and tools were cleaned, organized and ready. That person would make sure extension cords were kept out of the way and uncluttered and that trash was thrown away. 

Nothing was tracked outside or inside. There was no garbage on the floor, no metal scrap lying around, no tripping hazards, and no music blasting. It always surprised me how deliberate and precise they were. They made complex systems and connections look simple. When they soldered their last joint, they would leave. There was nothing left to do.  

The younger crews did things different. They didn’t want a ground man because “he watches and get parts.” The trash can was for soda bottles and tobacco spit. Pipe insulation, wire jackets, copper and iron scrap, and dropped screws all ended up on the floor. They said it would be quicker to clean it up all at one time. They would blast music, take breaks, forget to have batteries on charge, and forget to put cardboard under the threading machine.

They spent a lot of time going through bags and boxes of unorganized fittings trying to find the right ones. Coming down and spending two to three hours cleaning the mess they made was routine. They usually had caused such a mess that it became a bigger job trying to get cleaned up than the piping job itself. Right around the time they started to clean up, the old-timers would be leaving for home.

I noticed a big difference between the two crews. Both ended up doing exceptional work; but with the older crews, you could really see the experience shine through. They were very calm and methodical. It was almost a religious experience to watch them work. They would say, “fast is slow, slow is fast.” But their difference-maker was that ground man. The ground man was able to keep the plumbers’ minds clear, focused and organized. It was almost like they were “in the zone” because they didn’t have to wonder whether it was cleanup time. They didn’t have to concern themselves with cleaning and organizing their tools at the end of the day.

The ground man was satisfied because he got to learn and be useful, and the pipe fitters were satisfied because it was another easy workday. There was something calming and satisfying about the way they did things. It really felt like a professional job every time. Each job felt safe and under control.

Workmanship always goes hand in hand with job site cleanliness. A cluttered job site leads to a cluttered mind; and a cluttered mind leads to mistakes. At some point, the younger crew of pipe fitters adopted the clean policy. Now with the combined power of old-school workmanship and new technology, they are the best in the business.

About Me

I have been in the trades since I was 9 years old (family business). I started cleaning toilets, mopping floors and putting fittings away in our warehouse. As I picked up skills, I would add becoming a ground man and laborer. I spent every minute that I could after school and weekends trying to find someone to go with. I spent summers and winters helping the guys dig ditches and run service calls. When I was ready, I became an apprentice and then a journeyman plumber. I graduated college with a business and economics degree and immediately wanted to come back to work in the family business. A few years ago, I become a licensed master plumber.  


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