I can’t take credit for the headline or the deck for this column since I lifted it directly from an editorial written by legendary PHCP trade magazine editor Jim Olsztynski 14 years ago when I worked for him.
The reason why I’m ripping Jim off is a new look at the same old problem he addressed back in 2004.
A couple of issues ago, PHC News published pictures of reader-supplied snapshots of road-stopping trucks in its February edition. It’s a collection of great-looking vehicles, and a feature PHC News does every year.
But in the batch of this year’s submissions was an image that you may have seen before. Jim and I certainly did back then, and it was the reason he wrote this particular editorial.
“At least a dozen people have emailed me a photo of a plumbing contractor’s truck that is bound to turn heads as it makes its way around town,” Jim wrote.
The photo, then as now, showed the driver’s door painted to show from the chest-down the image of a man with his pants pulled down sitting on a toilet. Meanwhile, the real-life driver was shown from the chest-up through the opened door’s window. Added together, we have a contractor sitting on the toilet. (To be clear, I don’t mean to say that the truck I saw this year was the exact same truck I saw in 2004; it definitely was the same design.)
“I’m sure many of you have seen the same jpeg,” Jim said. “It seems to have ricocheted around the internet as much as Paris Hilton’s sex life.”
Paris who? That shows how long this particular truck display has been out there. And that in itself is an adequate reason to nix it from running in the magazine. For all we know, the trucks we did pick may have been dreamt up the week before. Creativity counts.
But there’s a bigger reason to not run it, Jim’s reason.
“You’d have to be dead not to laugh at the ridiculous image,” he wrote, “and I’m glad to confirm that I’m very much alive. Yet, mine were chuckles tinged with guilt for finding humor in what’s really a sad situation.”
As editors, we take it for granted that contractors are hard-working craftsmen and craftswomen who deliver services that do much more than just keep the heat on and the water flowing. Everyday, they quickly and easily provide what was once one of civilization’s greatest challenges — to provide clean water and treat wastewater. I may be oversimplifying the job, but try going without. And as soon as they provide it at one job, it’s off to the next.
It’s a tough slog. That’s the big reason editors serve as part-cheerleader for the readers and part-ambassador for the industry at large.
But let’s face it: Plenty of other people, if they think of tradespeople at all, think of a dirty-fingered lout with no college who can’t keep their pants hitched up.
For Jim, however, none of the public’s negative images did half the damage that fellow plumbing contractors did to themselves.
“The truck described here no doubt draws plenty of attention,” Jim wrote, “but is that the image you want to convey to potential customers?”
And it’s not as if Jim hadn’t seen worse. Someone else had sent him a picture of another plumbing truck displaying this slogan: “Other people’s s*** is our bread and butter.”
While he added that there weren’t many prudes in this down-to-earth industry, and he himself confessed to indulging in dark humor when among friends, you wouldn’t see any of it in a public forum like a national, monthly trade magazine.
“And that’s the point,” he wrote. “There’s a difference between what’s tolerable in private and what’s suitable for public display.”
It’s one thing to voice the “bread and butter” dictum or depict someone else take a dump at a fraternal gathering of trade insiders, it’s quite another to broadcast it to outsiders who are as likely to be disgusted as amused — or use it to consider plumbers with the same poor clichés.
“Plumbing contractors would do well to keep their potty humor as a trade secret,” Jim wrote. “Low brow buffoonery only eggs people on to indulge in plumber jokes … ”
For Jim, the best thing contractors could do to counter a negative image was to turn it to their advantage.
“Accept that most people think of plumbers as a bunch of butt-crack exhibitionists,” he concluded. “It actually works in the favor of plumbing companies that elevate themselves above the norm. Amid such low expectations, it doesn’t take much to stand out. Clean trucks and uniforms and a little customer relationship training can make your people seem like royal ambassadors compared with 90 percent of the competition.”
Plenty has changed since Jim wrote these words. Luckily for the industry, we’re seeing something absent in 2004. And that is more and more articles in the mainstream media with a more uplifting tone toward the trades and, particular, trade schools that have me hoping for less butt-crack jokes in the years ahead.
The Association for Career and Technical Education represents 25,000 educators who serve thousands in secondary schools, and millions of more students in more than 1,600 two-year colleges. The group says 49 states last year enacted some 240 various legislative policies to support vocational education.
Plenty of teenagers and young adults are questioning the value of a college degree. Meanwhile, their parents are worried about the rising cost of tuition and crippling student debt. This has to bode well for vocational education that’s much cheaper than college and that provides well-paying jobs in industries crying for new labor.
The morning I dug up Jim’s editorial, for example, The Wall Street Journal published a feature on Raelee Nicholson, a junior at a Pittsburgh-area high school who earns A’s in her honors classes and placed in the 88th percentile on her college boards.
So where’s she going after high school? A two-year technical program that will qualify her to work as a diesel mechanic.
Nicholson’s choice certainly runs opposite to 30 years of conventional wisdom when everyone was pushed into college to be a success — all except for the “bad kids” who had to settle for a tech school.
But college, even when you don’t consider the ever-increasing tuition costs, isn’t the one-way ticket to the Good Life these days. Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce is quoted in the article saying that as many as half the students enrolled in college never get a degree or certificate. And among those who do graduate, Carnevale says about one-third end up in jobs that don’t even require a four-year degree.
This counterrevolution toward what higher learning actually means, however, will continue to be a hard sell.
Sure enough, the article says Nicholson’s guidance counselor, two teachers and several other adults tell her she’s making a big mistake. But she’s not changing her mind. Not since that time she was 14, and she rebuilt a car with her older cousin.
“We worked on it the entire summer, and when we got it running it was the best feeling in the world,” she said. “I really like working with my hands.”
Besides, she adds, diesel mechanics charge $80 an hour.
With that kind of pride from a new generation of tradespeople for their toil, that new attitude toward trade education, that might keep plumbing contractors from going for the cheap laughs.