The only constant is change. Sometimes, change is slow and unnoticed, until it eventually becomes clear and obvious. A good example would be the training of our trades. Intent and focus of training changes with generations. One generation focused on skills and one generation focused on production. I can remember the height of this era. Trade workers were specialized with limited skill development. I remember workers who excelled at a single task but failed to be a true journeymen. (An example is when a plaster pump expert was put on my finish crew. To my shock, he was not capable to even take the mortar from the hawk with his trowel. I remember thinking this is not good for him and potentially a problem for the trade.) 

Today, it seems the pendulum has swung in a new direction. I see training programs that seem to be focused on making a worker capable to be a universal worker. I am stuck remembering the phrase, “Jack of all trades; master of none.” Is this a good thing or potentially problematic? I can understand employers wanting a universal worker who can hang doors, tape drywall and then be sent to apply plaster. 

I was a plasterer and while I could lath, it was not with speed or efficiency. Paying me by the hour to hang lath would never work, except today that might be acceptable. However, that was then and not measured by today’s production rates. 

Point Taken?

I believe both eras are missing the point and are failing to serve the worker or our industry. A specialist needs to be special but within reasonable limitations. Any journeyman trade worker should be able to do most of the skills required for that trade. 

However, expecting that worker to be proficient at multiple trades essentially turns all of them into basic laborers. Can we really expect that to work? Given the complexity of modern assemblies with a multitude of products, it sure seems a recipe for disaster. The scariest part is that many of these young workers are being told they are now superior in all the trades. The only solution left is to lower the standards so anyone with minimum training is a journeyman. 

Returning to some middle ground where workers focus on a single craft and are taught why things work and why they don’t would seem a better path. If you think this is not an issue, consider most workers tend to reply, “That is the way I have always done it.” This is not understanding the why. 

We should be focusing on the craft of the trade and enhancing productivity. This would allow workers to command a decent salary. It would be better for subcontractors. General or unskilled labor leads to problems, leaks and callbacks. Another point is if systems are made to be installed by anyone, anyone can do it. So at that point, who needs a specialty subcontractor? You are not a specialty contractor but merely a loan officer and assuming the bulk of the risk. 

Good Idea?

I am surprised when I get the response that the contractor can hire an inspector with all the money it saves. Sounds good at first but does that inspector know what they are looking at and what about items they cannot see, like depth of the fasteners? All of this is a precurser to pre-fabrication. This is because it solves our talent pool problem but at what price for the worker and the specialty contractor? 

While subcontractors will initially be pleased at cost reductions, profit margins will shrink. This is because anyone can do the work. Subcontractors should be concerned as it is your expertise that makes you of value. Removing that makes you easily replaced. 

The second part is the eventual death of an industry or trade. When designers want that flexibility provided by truly skilled workers, they will be gone. Without skilled trade workers and supervisors with knowledge of that craft that only comes from experience, it will disappear. We have seen this happen before. 

Interior plastering is essentially gone and while designers want plaster again, it is too expensive and there is no one to do it. This is because the market dried up and the skilled workers vanished with no real passing of the torch. Plaster used to be a slight upcharge; today, it starts at double the cost. 

Some think it was inevitable for interior plaster to die out. Ironically, interior plaster is still popular in Europe and likely to stay a favored interior finish. Owners have the option of drywall or pay a slight upcharge for plaster and plaster wins its fair share of the market. The European Union seems well aware of this and puts significantly more effort and funding into training craft workers than North America.