Labor Come Alive!

August 14, 2015
It’s a thrill to see the results of your work

I spent more than three decades covering the skilled trades as a trade journalist. Now that I’m retired I look back with immense satisfaction at the friendships made and life lessons learned. Among the latter is a profound appreciation of the contributions made to our society by construction and service trade craft workers. Our country simply could not function without capable plumbers, HVAC technicians, electricians and so on building our household and commercial infrastructure and keeping it intact.

Years ago when I covered a story about a mechanical contractor in Baltimore the contractor assigned one of his foremen to drive me back to the airport. The foremen took me there via several detours past buildings where his crews had installed plumbing and HVAC systems. You couldn’t see them from the outside but he was like a heart surgeon pointing with pride to a healthy individual he had operated on. You don’t see the surgeon’s handiwork either, but you can see the results. Despite being worried about missing my flight, the experience carved an indelible memory of pride in craftsmanship that I’ve witnessed many other times over.

Among them were a couple of times when I spent several days at the annual “Training the Trainers” program sponsored by the United Association (UA) at colleges in Michigan. The UA is the plumbers union whose members work in the U.S. and Canada. Each year they host a week-long program for journeymen plumbers who wish to become trainers in UA apprenticeship programs around the country. To get certified they undergo rigorous training, both technical and how to deliver instruction, at “Training the Trainers.” They must do so over a period of several years before graduating and becoming certified to teach apprentices.

One of the things that impressed me was finding out that almost all of them were doing it on their own vacation time. They sacrificed personal time off to become better at what they do and help advance their trade.

I could see that dedication close up while mingling with them between classes and during breaks. Put aside the controversies about unions and their politics. I simply must say that in hours of conversation with those trainers in training, as well as eavesdropping on many chats among themselves, I never once heard them talk about wages, working conditions or other points of contention associated with unions. Besides personal chit-chat, all of the conversations were about the techniques and tools of their craft, which they were there to advance.

I attended a graduation ceremony for the trainers who had completed their years of preparation to advance the plumbing craft. It was a moving affair with standing ovations and families in attendance. The head of the UA’s training department was a speaker at that event, and he related a conversation with the head of the town’s police department. The police chief commented how well behaved were all the UA participants. He noted that more often when conventions and conferences come to town his officers usually notice an uptick in drunken disturbances and other rowdy behavior. Not with the UA crowd. They came there with a singular purpose in mind, not to party.

Being a skilled trade worker entails pride in craftsmanship. You can see and touch the results of your work, which goes on providing sanitation, comfort, convenience and illumination for fellow citizens for in many cases longer than you live. It’s a chance to leave a legacy.

I’m not a skilled trade worker. I don’t have what it takes to do good work with tools. But I feel a kinship with those that do. That’s why when people ask me what I did/do for a living, I usually reply: “I’m a wordsmith.”