The pipe trades labor crunch is a problem for distributors, too.

Mike Adelizzi, ASA’s executive vice president of recent vintage, was chatting with me recently about the industry’s challenges. Among them are workforce issues, he informed. Distributors have trouble attracting talented people to an industry that’s out of sight and mind to most of the population.

Then the conversation took off in an unexpected direction. Coming from a background heading the Mason Contactors Association of America, Adelizzi is well aware of the pinch being felt by contractors employing skilled trade workers and said, “It’s a problem for distributors, too.”

What he said makes sense. The difficulty contractors face in recruiting pipe trades workers alters some basic precepts of the PHCP supply business. Many of our industry’s distributors were founded by former plumbers, and trade ranks traditionally have provided a steady stream of personnel to fill their jobs. It’s no coincidence that the skilled labor shortage in trade ranks coincides with widespread reports of diminished expertise among counter staff and other wholesaler personnel.

The pipe trades also have provided the bread-and-butter customers of PHCP distributors. This has enabled business to be conducted on an elevated B-to-B plane. You don’t have to explain how piping systems work to professional plumbers and fitters. Salesmanship and training can be focused on technical details instead of fundamentals.

This traditional way of doing business is eroding. Work that used to get done by highly trained craftsmen now is the province of task specialists, do-it-yourselfers or jack-of-all-trades handymen. Those folks typically don’t share historical bonds of loyalty with PHCP supply houses. Moreover, manufacturers increasingly design products with modular components for easy installation and change-outs. This diminishes the value of technical expertise that has always been a competitive edge for PHCP distributors over alternative channels of distribution. As the supply business trends toward nothing but selling products, customers find ever fewer reasons to shop for anything except the lowest price.

The root cause of the decline in trade careers has to do with our society’s success in bringing higher education to the masses. A college education used to be unattainable for a vast majority of our population. Now upwards of 60% of the American workforce has at least some college and 27% of the working population boasts a college degree. Today’s high school counselors look at the trades as a repository for what they see as losers not cut out for college, rather than an attractive career option for those with a keen mechanical aptitude.

Ironically, this attitude - coupled with parental and peer pressure - has resulted in too many kids who indeed are not cut out for college occupying space there. As a former college instructor, I can recall struggling students confiding in me that they’d rather be fixing cars or involved in some other trade instead of going through the motions of writing papers on topics that bored them. The experience convinced me that today’s corporate and government bureaucracies are filled with third-rate paper pushers who could have become first-rate plumbers had they been nudged in that direction.

Distributors can’t solve this problem, but they can contribute a little nudging by helping to raise the profile and image of the industry as a whole. Selling points are abundant, including:

  • Green revolution. Our industry is at the forefront of the green revolution. Experts at all levels of the PHCP industry are involved in efforts to obtain cleaner air, cleaner water and more efficient use of our energy and water resources.
  • Intellectual challenge. Today’s global marketplace has given rise to logistical complexities that require top-notch people to solve.
  • Career opportunities. Everyone seems to focus on the negative aspects of industry consolidation in absorbing family businesses. On the plus side is the buildup of sophisticated large organizations filled with advancement opportunities.
  • Entrepreneurial opportunity. The pipe trades offer one of the quickest and simplest routes to business ownership.

    The workforce problem of distributors is different in a significant way than that of the pipe trades. Everyone is familiar in a broad sense with the work plumbers do. It’s just that most people think it an icky way to earn a living. Distributors have not so much a negative image to counteract as no image. Theirs is the easier task to accomplish in filling a clean slate.

    Just remember that a rising tide raises all ships. Anything that boosts the stature of the pipe trades is bound to work in your favor as well.