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Trades and the Skills Gap – A Manifesto
This article is a year old, and I'm recycling it because it's on my mind today. I had a fun conversation with Richard Trethewey on the podcast that has me thinking along these lines today. The link is HERE if the player isn't showing up.
I have a confession to make. I'm a bit of a snob.
It's embarrassing to admit because I never wanted to be a snob. I've consistently railed against snobbery whenever I bumped up against it.
But now I am one.
My snobbishness has been YEARS in the making.
I remember being on call when I was 20 years old and hearing my emergency pager go off at 1 am. At that time, we had a toddler who wasn't the best sleeper, and we were living in a one-room “house.” I rolled out of bed and walked outside to call the customer, speaking out loud beforehand to try and get the sleep out of my voice before I dialed.
Me: “Hello, may I speak with Mr. Pedergast?”
Customer: “Yes, who is this?”
Me: “This is the A/C technician with (redacted). I received a call that you have an emergency.”
Customer: “Yeah, you guys were JUST out here, and now my A/C isn't working, and I need you out here right away!”
Me: “Ok, I will be out within a few hours. Please have any recent invoices available, so I can take a look before I start working.”
Customer: “What? TWO HOURS? You won't be here until 3 am? I need to WORK in the morning!”
Me: “I will be there as soon as I can, sir. It would be two hours at most.”
Customer: “OK, just get here as soon as you can.” (click)
Needless to say, Mr. Pendergast actually had three systems in his home, but the one that wasn't working was his master bedroom, so it was an absolute emergency. Heaven forbid he use the spare room or **gasp** SLEEP ON THE COUCH.
It also turns out we hadn't worked on THAT system recently; we had worked on another one, but that didn't prevent him from pitching a fit when I wrote down a diagnosis fee on the invoice.
So, I have a question directed at the mindset that drives people like this customer to devalue the trades and the people who work in them. What can you ACTUALLY DO, Mr. Pendergast? What real value do YOU add to society? Who needs YOU at 2 am? What does YOUR workday look like? How many real-world problems do YOU solve?
I have these thoughts now that I didn't necessarily have when I was 20 because, at that time, I may have had much the same view of my work and value that Mr. Pendergast had. Back then, I wasn't a snob that looked down on people like Mr. Pendergast. Now I am, much to my own chagrin.
What does this have to do with the skills gap?
This customer is an extreme version of a larger challenge that exists in the minds of people, from CEOs to tradespeople themselves. This is the belief that one type of work is “more important” than another, and, therefore, doing one thing over another makes you (or others) more or less important.
As I've progressed in my career and interacted with more people from various “prestigious” professions, I've noticed three things that relate to this topic:
- Many of them are excellent people who I enjoy immensely.
- They have no idea what it takes to do what we do.
- They aren't any better, smarter, or more important than tradespeople like us.
You see, most of them don't really think they are BETTER than you and I; they just don't have a clue what it means to BE you and I. They can imagine what it's like to work in an attic or crawlspace, to drag a furnace through the dirt, up a hill with a hand truck, or to work on a call in the wee hours of the morning, but they still have NO CLUE what it really takes.
And that's OK! It isn't their experience, so they can't be expected to understand. You cannot change how others see the world by complaining about their worldview. We can change it by taking steps to value the trade ourselves and start thinking about all work, education, and recruiting a bit differently.
Manifesto for Filling the Skills Gap
#1 – The Trades Don't Always Need to be a Full Contact Sport
I hear it all the time, some version of: “I don't want to be turning a wrench when I'm 60. My body can't handle it!”
That would be like asking a running back to carry the ball in the NFL or a pitcher still throwing a 96 MPH fastball when they're 60. There are aspects of our trade that are very physically demanding, there are segments that are minimally demanding, and then there are roles that will allow you to sit in front of a screen and talk on a phone most of the time.
I wrote that last one because I knew 99% of you who have worked in the field got hives just THINKING about sitting in front of a computer all day. Many of us work with our hands because we ENJOY working with our hands, getting some fresh air, turning a wrench now and then, and ultimately solving problems in the real world.
Which one of us, as a kid, dreamed of a future where we would sit behind a desk answering emails and attending meetings all day?
We all have a desire to DO COOL THINGS, not just talk about cool things and certainly not to sit on our butts staring at a screen all day.
The real problem isn't turning a wrench; the issue is that we are afraid that the trade will use up our bodies and then leave us hanging when we can no longer throw that 96 MPH fastball.
Here's the truth: nobody who continues to invest in their mind and personal growth will be left hanging by this trade moving forward. There is just too much to do and too few people to do it. Getting left behind will happen due to a lack of development and preparation, not because of something intrinsic to the trade.
We have never needed the minds of those who have been around the business for 30+ years more than we do today. There just needs to be a shift in thinking from working our whole careers with the exact same focus to shifting from mostly physical to mostly mental work as we mature. I call this shifting from blue-collar to new-collar. Making a shift from physical contributions to mostly mental contributions takes time and intentionality, but it's critical to the future of the trade.
If we begin to phase more experienced people into training and supervision earlier, it will keep more people in the trade and help improve the next crop, but there is a catch. The grouchy, inflexible, ego-driven, foul-mouthed tech won't fit into these roles and will be left behind because they cannot be trusted to supervise and train properly.
Here is the litmus test for whether you are ready to begin making the transition:
If you have been in the trade for 15+ years, go ahead and think about a control system that's come out in the last 5 years that you are really comfortable with. Now, think about your three favorite books, audiobooks, or podcasts on personal development or leadership. If you are drawing a blank, then that is where you need to start.
We must have intentional programs and processes to transition more experienced workers to roles that utilize their field knowledge while coaching them on educational and leadership skills and traits. We need to leverage technology and resources to train and develop skills into existing tradespeople before looking forward to the next generation.
#2 – The Education System is Broken
There are many incredible educators, schools, and resources. Learning isn't broken; the education SYSTEM is broken, especially for the trades.
“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” ~ Mark Twain
Humans learn through concept association (“how this works reminds me of how that works”) and practice. Yet, the education system tries to teach using disassociated facts and memorization.
Imagine the US education system trying to teach a baby how to speak. They would develop a 4-year program where the baby would be taught Latin and Greek word roots, the history and science of words, and then given a speaking test to see what they remembered.
How do babies actually learn to speak? They learn by hearing the language used constantly, and once they learn some words, they make inferences on the meanings and pronunciations of other words, which they then practice in context. Once the baby starts speaking, then other adults and children begin to provide them with feedback on ways to improve their vocabulary and pronunciation.
Learning is natural and organic, and it has three necessary components:
- Desire to Learn
- Observation & Practice in Context
- Feedback & Instruction in Context
The education system can only provide #3, and it can only be expected to do it well when the first two elements are in place. Many of us grew up watching adults do things around the house, like installing an outlet, changing a tire, or soaking a mower carburetor. Once we started in a trade school or in the field, we already had a “language” of tactile skills we could draw from when we saw things in our trade of choice. If we had a good instructor or worked with a good journeyman, they would draw on the language and mechanical concepts we already understood to relate concepts in HVAC/R. This is why many of us learned electrical theory as related to the flow of water in pipes; we had already seen water flow, so this would help us understand the movement of electricity.
Many young people entering the workplace today don't speak the same mechanical language we spoke as kids because their experiences are more likely to be of screens and computer keyboards than fire, gasoline, and plumbing.
With this being what it is, we need to give new students and apprentices more experience with the basics of mechanical assembly and tools before we can expect them to understand mechanical concepts taught in a lecture.
This is not only true of the trades; this is also why many young people don't have basic skills like balancing a bank account, doing laundry, or dealing with disappointment. You don't learn these skills in a class; you learn them by doing them and dealing with them, and often, the culture emphasizes skills that are far less necessary for life than these. To bring it to a point, we think you need to learn theory and facts and then gain practice when really you must have a constant cycle between facts and application for it to make any sense. Often, this means seeing something done and doing it before you can learn why you did it or why it matters.
We must develop programs that allow for a continuous loop of observation, practice, instruction, and feedback that focuses on the application of a skill more than the information. Effective education develops the tactile “language” of learning rather than just hammering away at the information. We cannot wait for government programs to do this for us. Contractors, OEMs, wholesalers, educators, influencers, and reps need to work together to make this a reality.
#3 – Change Starts Between Our Ears
Back to me being a snob.
I don't know what Mr. Pendergast did for a living; maybe he was a scientist working on a cure for cancer or an astronaut or a recently deposed dictator (which I imagine to be the most likely). I can tell you that I'm glad that I work in a job where what I do makes a difference in people's lives. I'm glad for an honest day's work, doing pretty awesome stuff with some pretty neat tools, working alongside some really great people. I'm glad I don't devalue the hard work of others and their sacrifice, like Mr. Pendergast did with me.
I spoke on a panel the other day where the question came up about recruiting the next generation and why young people don't flock to the trades. I asked for a show of hands from the audience of how many of them encourage their kids to enter the trades. Only a few hands went up out of hundreds of people in the room.
Maybe the reason we have a problem getting young people into the trades is that parents encourage kids to go into a career where they don't need to put in a hard physical day's work.
Why is that?
Do we think there is something wrong with having dirty hands and lifting heavy things every once and a while? I don't think that's it based on how many people pay GOOD MONEY to attend CrossFit classes and mud runs.
I think much of society has bought into a lie that working in blue-collar jobs is somehow a “lesser” option. You are OK with your kids working an apprenticeship and attending a trade school if “college isn't for them” or if they “just aren't academic,” but not as a first option.
Those of you pushing your kids towards college, how would you feel if I said, “Yeah, I understand. Some kids just aren't suited to work for a living.” It's insulting and ridiculous to assume that a kid needs to choose a trade if “college just isn't for them.” Maybe they should choose a trade because it's an interesting, rewarding, and tactile career path where you get to solve real problems every day.
Ultimately I want my kids to do whatever they do with excellence, and I want them to enjoy the path they choose, whether that is as an HVAC tech or a physicist, although I'm pretty biased to HVAC myself.
We need to ask ourselves if we are ashamed of being in a blue-collar industry and if that impacts how we talk about our work to young people. If we are excited about this trade, then don't be afraid to be outspoken about it.
Let's get the skills gap filled by creating better paths for experienced people, improving education, and being really excited about the opportunities in our trade for the next generation.
Oh, and that toddler who my pager almost woke up when I was 20—he just started as an apprentice in the trade. Don't worry; he can always go to college as a plan B if he can't cut it. 😉
—The HVAC Snob – Bryan Orr
And no—his real name wasn't Mr. Pendergast. That name is taken from a grouchy guy in one of my favorite movies as a kid. Do you know which one?