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I had returned a book to my local library and immediately began imagining how to apply what I just read. I crossed the book off my Goodreads list by rating it. I feel accomplished after reading a book and am commonly inspired to learn more about the topic. As avid readers know, it takes commitment and effort to finish books, and there are many other distractions to reading, especially in our limited leisure time.
Enrico Moretta’s book, “The New Geography of Jobs,” describes how technology improvements are “hollowing out” lower-skilled jobs in the North American labor market, such as bank tellers, forklift operators and factory workers; their replacements being computers, kiosks, and automation through technology.
This is hardly surprising considering the advancements in AI technology and improved computer processing time. To me, the most impactful insight was when Moretta described types of occupations that typically require “nonroutine tasks,” either abstract or manual. Nonroutine jobs are expected to remain relevant in the face of automation; some of his examples included house cleaners, hairdressers, and technicians in the trades. The reason being that it is challenging to uproot these jobs outside of the region where they are commonplace, and technology automation hasn’t quite advanced for self-service, self-repair or replacement.
Furthering the point, a recent economist provided data demonstrating that pent-up retrofit and new construction demand will be exploding, not several years in the future, but right now. They link this demand to the 2006 housing bubble burst.
As we all remember, the housing bubble contributed to the Great Recession and several years of economic hardships. But during this period, consumers, flush with cash and nudged by government incentives, fueled a renaissance of equipment replacements, including higher efficiency units and a swarm of home upgrades and repairs.
The recent Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), passed by the Biden administration, mirrors this same scenario from 2006: Pass an economic incentive package that encourages home upgrades before and during an expected recessionary period. The potential anticipated from the IRA and the repair and replacement demand from the “2006 echo boom” will exacerbate an already fragile skilled trades workforce epidemic.
After returning the book, I began to feel a tug to do something. The worker shortage has been building momentum for a decade, but we have done little to coordinate our efforts to stop it. Ruminating, I kept coming back to this question:
• Could the skilled trades be viewed differently, and what could I do about it?
Of course, the best bet on creating the “next generation” is to begin with our younger generation. According to bls.org, between now and 2025, there will be an expected 15% growth in the number of North American jobs in the trades, with the average growth rate for all other occupations at 7%. Yet, today, fewer children are being introduced to the skilled trades. This has become a reality based on many factors, including budget cuts at vocational and education institutions, the negative occupational perception, and societal cultures that value being served rather than serving.
Even with this, I remain encouraged about the prospects for our industry, but we cannot wait any longer to transform society’s opinion about us. The mechanical, electrical, and plumbing industries are comfort businesses. Being comfortable is a commodity that others outside our space may take for granted. Our homes and businesses are built with these systems and need support, replacement or upgrades. There is nothing sexy about replacing a water heater when it reaches end of life, repairing a bathroom fan, or servicing a leak in your refrigerator’s plumbing line. But like everything in life, the timeline for repair and replacement isn’t if, but when.
Changing negative contractor perceptions is a call to action for me, and I’d like to imagine it for my generation. It doesn’t matter if you work at a manufacturer, distributor, software provider or trade association; we don’t have an industry without skilled trades in the field.
These technicians and installers are the most important people you know when they solve your problem. Enjoyably, they do so with a can-do attitude, good spirit, and willingness to go the extra mile. Simply put, as
a workforce the skilled trades are essential. The trades need us. And your friends, neighbors, and parents need skilled trades too. We can grow the importance of skilled trades by telling, sharing, collaborating and promoting the positive messages of the industry and encouraging more people to discover it and get into our business. Follow my lead, share the skilled trades story, band together, and support MEP.
Ryan Kiscaden is an HVACR and plumbing marketer employed by a major plumbing manufacturer. His experiences include working for an HVACR and plumbing wholesaler, running a non-profit focused on recycling thermostats and major plumbing equipment manufacturers.