In the summer of 2003, I was a member of a panel discussion at George Brown College in Toronto with three other HVAC guys and about 100 students.
The students were all taking courses in gas fitting, pipe fitting, HVAC design and other related instruction.
I said to the room that it seemed to me that people were leaving high school and instead of pursuing apprenticeships and learning a trade were opting for white-collar information technology (IT) jobs, which involve less physical labour and offers a workplace that’s warm in winter and cool in summer.
It got me to thinking about my high school days, the kids in my classes and their attitude towards the people who worked in and around the school.
A lot of the kids came from fairly well-off families. Their dads were professionals; doctors, lawyers and the like. I remember during one concert an announcement called for a doctor to handle some sort of emergency in the building and it seemed that half the audience stood up. We all laughed.
They lived in good neighbourhoods and the thought of entering a trade wasn’t on their minds. They were being groomed for careers in business, law and medicine.
Little green men
To them, the trades were ‘little green men’, ‘workies’, blue boys and the prevailing attitude was that they had somehow screwed up in school and would never become anything but plumbers, carpenters and labourers.
It was different for a lot of us who came from working families. My dad was a salesman for HVAC suppliers. My lifelong buddies down the street were raised by a very determined single mom. She raised three boys on a secretary’s salary. In the case of my family, six kids on a spotty flow of commissions made for economies at home (big boxes of powdered milk and cheese sandwiches) and hoping that enough money would come in to cover the food, bills and rent.
I’m ashamed, now, fifty years later, that some of us went along with the prevailing attitude towards the trades and started thinking along the same lines as the upper-class kids. Maybe that’s what propelled so many of us into university and the professions, the fear of being excluded, or of dying poor. I can’t speak for a lot of my buddies, but it sure worked on me.
Not so smart
Fast forward to 1977 when I started working as an HVAC equipment salesman: To me, my starting salary of $18,000 a year was just fine. It meant that I could afford my first car, a beat-up 1960 Volkswagen.
The company had about 20 HVAC mechanics, mostly servicing centrifugal chillers. It didn’t take too long for me to figure out that I, mister hotshot engineering grad, wasn’t as smart as I thought I was.
I put myself through school thanks to co-op work periods, driving taxi and working winter holidays in cemeteries around Toronto.
Meanwhile, the techs had all come up as apprentices, starting at about eight bucks an hour and with increases every few thousand hours or so.
They were sitting pretty, then, at $16.50 an hour, with houses and a few toys, as licensed journeymen, whereas I was renting a room in a pal’s house near the old neighbourhood for three hundred a month. You bet that got me thinking!
I learned, also, that those guys weren’t slow to learn, by any means. They were bright guys who would rather get stuck into the guts of a centrifugal chiller or a V-8 engine then sit all day in an office, drinking bad coffee, smoking cigarettes and wishing it was 5 o’clock and time to head home.
All thoughts of money and social status aside, they were fortunate to be able to down tools at quitting time and not have to worry about getting that crucial purchase order in house, or process shop drawings.
Life better in the trades
Later on, when I became involved in design-build projects with an HVAC contracting outfit, I found out everything you’d need to know about sleepless Sunday nights and worrying about bringing in enough work for a crew of up to 20 people. Stress is a killer.
The kicker was, I always liked to tear down and rebuild engines, had an old motorcycle or two that I flogged around town, and I came to envy our techs. That got me thinking that maybe I’d made a mistake in going academic in high school instead of taking a few trades courses in another school.
Where this is leading to is me wondering why so many kids graduate from high school and opt for careers in IT instead of the trades.
Things have never been better for plumbers, electricians and other skilled tradesmen; especially here during Toronto’s condo boom. Good people are precious. Their numbers are dwindling. Fewer high school grads are opting for apprenticeships and every contractor/client I deal with has the same complaint: “We need more guys but there aren’t any around’.
I rode a GO train out to Oshawa one evening and heard the men in front of me saying they commuted in every day from Norwood, Pontypool, Omemee and a few other more remote locations. Travel time be damned, they were needed. They got premium wages and once they were hired, the owners wanted to retain them.
Compare working on-site, which one cannot deny can be pretty rough at times, with sitting a cubicle slaving away at some new startup for 16 hours a day for $30 an hour. I’ll take the job site any time.
I’m happy with my situation now; semi-retired, lots of work on the go and I’m in and out of my office whenever the projects require it of me or if I just feel like doing a job walk on one of my sites.
Sometimes, though, I think about how my life would have been better, in some ways, had I chosen to get a trade license instead of being a P. Eng. (I’m skeptical – ed.)
If nothing else, my bikes would be in better shape.