We often take for granted that any professional who charges us money is appropriately trained, whether licensed or not. Perhaps we assume this because the plumbing field has been developing for over 700 years, and the licensing process looks almost the same as it did 200 years ago. But the plumber who walks in your door today may not be effectively trained, or may even do unsafe work. You probably won’t know it, though; most have learned to bluff through their work, and don’t believe they need to learn more.
Conscientious Pros: The Past
Ever since the Black Death, a disease epidemic that killed 30–60 percent of Europe’s population in the 1300s, plumbing has been a valued trade. To avoid epidemics and ensure safe, effective plumbing systems, master plumbers taught their young apprentices for up to eight years. By contract, the apprentice was housed, fed, and clothed, but never paid. The master’s reputation for quality work brought customers; slowly, over time, the novice absorbed the knowledge and skills necessary to reach independent-journeyman status. A journeyman could start his own business after the contract was complete, but he was never admitted into the trade’s guild as a master unless he produced an acknowledged “masterpiece.” In this way, customers and society were assured of quality plumbing work, from either a journeyman or a master plumber.
Today, the licensing process looks about the same, but it is vastly different, and the result is an epidemic of untrained plumbing professionals. How can this be?
Busy Learning, But Not Trained
There are two main factors that have produced this result, children’s education laws and labor laws. In the 1800s, parents could be fined or have their children taken away for not sending them to available elementary schools. Fast forward to 2017, where Maryland upped the age of mandatory education to 18. Most children don’t even have a minimal shop class, and there are only a few separate technical (trade) high schools.
Most children don’t have time or exposure to discover how fascinating and satisfying it can be to create something valuable with their own hands, to solve concrete problems, and to serve the needs of others. College is being promoted as the end goal of a “good education,” but nowadays college leaves many young people with major debt and without easily salable skills.
A Valuable Education
Most parents are not aware that trade jobs can pay well, and may not even consider suggesting or researching the option for their child. But there are hundreds of trades where basic skills can be acquired within one to two years, entry-level education can cost $5,000–25,000 total (about what we might spend in a day on a wedding), and they can offer a lifetime of stable income – usually between $40,000–90,000 a year, depending on the industry, job skill level, personal financial ability, and perhaps business savvy.
What’s an Educated Plumber?
Some trades do have understandable, effective training paths nowadays. Nursing, for example, which is also a hands-on, problem-solving field, has certification programs and levels showing which skills new nursing students have mastered. There is no such thing yet in plumbing; a person could just change faucets for four years, have a master plumber sign off on total hours worked, pass testing on plumbing code, and legally work anywhere in the field doing any plumbing.
There are attempts at trade school training, but for this hands-on field, there is no replacement for absorbing knowledge and skills while working in the field with a well-trained, experienced, master plumber.
But how can one get this training? Children are in school to age 18 and, from 18 to 24, they are going to college or eager to start making money. Can they become an apprentice and learn on the job? Theoretically yes, but in reality, no.
The Problem with Paying Someone
Because labor laws require employers to pay for every hour worked, a plumbing business has to find something of high enough value to bring in that $500 per week or more to pay all the costs associated with having an employee. Who can afford to pay this much to someone for years, especially in a one-man, one-truck service, before they can do any work that makes money for the company? And who really has time for training when they are busy accomplishing quality work for a customer?
What the law requires is, practically speaking, impossible: The apprentice is required to work for a master plumber who legally must but cannot afford to pay him until he is financially viable. And anyone less than a licensed journeyman or master plumber is not considered competent, and not allowed, to work in the field alone.
Let the Buyer Beware
Customers are balancing a lot of needs and wants on a limited budget. Businesses, on the other hand, have to make enough money to cover both obvious and hidden costs and make a profit, or there is no use in providing the service.
All these factors have led to the following “solutions,” which happen every day:
- Some plumbing businesses buy a master’s license coverage, but the master plumber doesn’t oversee or train anyone. The businesses end up hiring whoever can get the job done so the company can get paid.
- Some licensed MHIC (Maryland Home Improvement Commission) contractors either present themselves as licensed and qualified to perform plumbing and other trade-specific services, or they cover unlicensed providers. An MHIC license qualifies these contractors to do carpentry, drywall, painting, decks, and more, but not plumbing, electrical, or HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) work. If a customer asks for names, credentials, or license numbers to check the facts, some contractors will even accuse the customer of not trusting them.
- Sometimes contractors obtain permits for a smaller job, like adding a deck or a small renovation, and then start and complete a much bigger job after the inspector has passed the inspection on the smaller job, allowing them to claim that they have a permit, even if it doesn’t actually cover what they claim it does. It should be noted that what a permit covers can be looked up online.
- House “flippers” may beautifully renew a home, a realtor may sell it at top dollar, and the new owners learn after moving in that costly issues are hidden in their walls and floors. Obviously, an unqualified plumber was used for these jobs, if a plumber was used at all.
Today’s reality is that any available handyman can charge 50–80 percent of a qualified plumber’s rates and often do the job wrong, but as long as it doesn’t leak, the customer won’t know, and once the money has been paid, there is no viable recourse. The customer doesn’t know the issues and dangers that the plumbing code has been designed to protect against.
Qualified, licensed plumbers are held accountable to this standard; untrained, unlicensed plumbing providers are not. Will you pay over and over to fix the same problem or new, related issues? And when a competent plumber is eventually called and he is presented with a morass of plumbing “don’ts,” will he be able to fix it simply and inexpensively? Most likely not. It’s vital for customers to have a good idea who is qualified before they buy.
How to Know Who to Trust
So what’s a homeowner to do when faced with a plumbing issue?
- Get trusted referrals from Angie’s List and friends with standards like your own.
- Ask contractors to show their trade ID card (Licensed Journeyman and Master Plumbers, Electricians, and HVAC and MHIC licensees all have them). They should be able to do this upon request.
- Check the license of anyone you want to hire to work on your home by going to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation (DLLR) website, then clicking on the specific trade to do a name search with the full name, spelled correctly.
- If you use someone unlicensed, please understand that there are very few unlicensed providers whose work measures up to a trained, licensed professional’s. Consider this: Not only are we juggling cost and quality, but we must account for safety as well.
Protect and Build the Future
Each of us can do small but valuable things to create a better reality in the availability of trained trades-people, including plumbers:
- Encourage unlicensed providers to find ways to complete appropriate training and get licensed.
- Be respectful and polite to those who serve you; not only does it make good relationships, but it also teaches your children that trade work is worthy of respect and a reasonable option as a career choice.
- Consider trade professions as possible career paths for your less academically oriented children. Discovering they are talented and capable at problem-solving and creating something valuable with their hands, something they enjoy doing, can give them real drive. And good training will empower them to be successful. Now there’s a low-cost, high-return investment!
- Support initiatives that help school-age students aged 14 to 18 learn trade skills while still getting the vital parts of their academic education.
- Support initiatives for effective trade training programs for young adults aged 18 to 24, so quicker entry into a good-paying career is a real option.
If each of us does these small parts, then in a few years we all will once again be able to trust that the plumber coming to our door is trained and will do a quality job for us.
1st Choice Plumbing is a full-service residential plumbing company under the direction of licensed Master Plumber/Gasfitter Alan (Pinchas) Urszuy. For questions, comments, and service, we can be reached at 410-967-6547 or email@example.com.