To the Skilled Tradespeople Go the Spoils

There's no special secret to advancing quickly in the plumbing and drain cleaning industry — put in the time to get trained and keep on learning

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Plumbing and drain cleaning are very similar to professional sports in one aspect — your skills are what really count. Skills and specialization can make you go from an average guy to a rockstar regardless of age. 

There are plumbers who have become complacent, refused to go to new training events, no longer read trade magazines and haven’t bought a book or read an installation manual in a decade. These plumbers gave up once they passed their code exam. They show up at 7, then the coffee break, followed by a long day complaining, lunch break, followed by more complaining, and at last the closing bell at 3 — time to go home, wake up and start over again! 

On the other hand, there are plumbers who are crushing their careers. Going to get their license and certifications, spending time after work learning, going to extra training seminars and volunteering to head up units. The formerly mentioned will continue for most of their career wondering why a company will sometimes promote a person with fewer years of experience into higher ranks. 

A story explains it all

Here’s a real-world example that I ran into the other day (which prompted me to write this). At a supply house I started a conversation with a guy. He explained that he started his career working for a utility company. Being a young man, he wasn’t happy with the pay and promotional opportunity structure that seemed to be primarily focused on seniority.  

He ended up leaving the utility company and went to work for a commercial plumbing company instead. After a few years the company asked him to get his plumbing license (which locally required a 4-year program). He declined because he didn’t want to spend two nights a week in school. He quit because he got passed up for a foreman position and said he’d rather just do a lot of utility and site work such as water and gas line installations. 

He said he found a company that did a lot of gas and water installations and repairs, but that they couldn’t keep him busy every day of the week. When this company asked him to install sewer lines as well, he protested and quit. He then bounced to another couple companies with the same type of complaint. They always wanted him to go get trained on drain cleaning, pipe lining, pipe bursting, water heater stuff, sewer lines, plumbing licensing, service training and so on.  

He said he didn’t get into the trade to keep going to school and didn’t understand why he couldn’t just install water and gas lines all day. I explained that his best bet would be to go with a company who does municipal style pipe lining. He said he would if it didn’t require training. To top this off, he said he was upset at his last job because there was a 30-year-old who got paid more than he did right off the bat and got promoted within five years of being there. I asked him about the new kid. He said “all this young kid had was his plumbing license.” 

The man continued: “He could fix anything. He spent 10 years as a service plumber and another six in new construction builds. They had him ride with me for a few months, he showed me things I’ve never seen before. He could run circles around people. He could do it all and did so without making one phone call for help. Totally independent. He was also asking to work overtime and emergency dig-ups and even went out of his way to put a crew together of a few current employees and started a quick reaction callout crew for emergencies. He spent every night reading about the trade, went into online groups and tried to pick up tricks, talked to other plumbers, called manufacturers, went to all the training stuff, he was great! It’s just crap that he got paid more since he was newer and that he was promoted when I have been putting in years here for over a decade!” 

Skills, not years lived, sets you apart

Having a two-way relationship with a company is an amazing thing for both parties. Loyalty matters, and so do the years of work someone puts in. A company with “lifers” is a great thing. There’s something to be said for longevity, loyalty and experience. But just because you lived another year at your current skill level doesn’t mean you’re better than everyone else or deserve more money or a promotion.  

What matters is how skilled you are at what you do. How do you become the best? Don’t settle and don’t ever stop. Not licensed? Get one. Training comes available for commercial valve repair? Make sure you’re there. Most trade magazines are free — get all of them in your mailbox. This new gas tubing requires a certification? Add it to your arsenal. Foreman position becomes available? Throw your name in the ring and let it be known you want the job. 

Become highly skilled, highly motivated and highly specialized. Take your career seriously, and don’t allow yourself to “let yourself go” to the point where you’re just happy to have made it to another year in the trade.

About the Author

Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has over two decades of experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College.


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