Finding the Right Skill Level Blend For Your Plumbing Team

An excellent service plumber needs to meet a long list of requirements: Clean driving record, no criminal background, ability to pass a drug test, punctuality, customer service skills, a cultural fit with your organization. The list goes on.

Of course, that all assumes that they also have the experience and talent to do the job. That’s a big assumption. As we all know, qualified talent is scarce. Scarce enough that the very idea of weeding through applications makes me start to itch.

Here’s a balm to help alleviate the rising panic: Experience shouldn’t always be the top priority. There is value in having a variety of experience and skill levels on your service team. Let’s take into consideration the three industry-standard skill levels available to your plumbing company:

Apprentices (or helpers) are your least expensive labor force. They are at the beginning of their plumbing careers and thus are typically eager for opportunity, willing to work hard, and (hopefully) have a healthy back.

These employees require more supervision and can’t run jobs on their own, but they are an excellent investment for both today and tomorrow. Sometimes you need a second set of hands. Sometimes you need muscle more than brain power. Let the apprentices learn hands-on while you lower your job costs. It’s a win-win.

Apprentices free up your more experienced and more expensive labor pool for other jobs. Over time, they will graduate to become journeymen.

These midlevel employees are the backbone of most service plumbing outfits. A journeyman can efficiently execute your bread-and-butter jobs on their own. They specialize in high-volume, high-profit work.

Journeymen are typically at a point in their lives where the money is a primary motivator. If you want to keep journeymen on your team, opportunities for advancement are essential. Keep them engaged with advanced training topics and look for future leaders among this talent pool. These are the master plumbers of tomorrow. They need to see that opportunity.

Master plumbers have been there and done that. As the most skilled and qualified members of your team, they are expensive.

Master plumber status is the height of most plumbers’ careers. As a more mature labor force, their biggest asset is their brain. When possible, look for master plumbers who have the heart of a teacher — people who have the patience and personality to want to share their knowledge.

Getting multiple master plumbers on a job can lead to a “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem. I joke that if you get 12 master plumbers in a room, they’re going to give you 15 options for how to solve the problem and 10 of them will actually work.

Master plumbers don’t have to be managers. As senior talent though, they should share in some level of leadership responsibility and have decision-making autonomy. Utilize their problem-solving abilities, let them act as your quality control, and make sure they train the younger employees.

Putting Together a Team
All three experience levels have advantages and disadvantages. Is there a magic cocktail of experience levels that make for a perfect plumbing team?

If only it were that easy. When you are putting together a team, there is theory, and there is reality.

A theory might tell you that for every six employees, hire one master, three journeymen, and two apprentices. That’s a reliable crew on paper. But nothing involving people is that simple. When you are designing a job post and your crystal ball breaks, you have to look at your team with a critical eye. What skills gaps are obvious and immediate needs? Who among your current team do you think will still be with you in a year, three years, five years? Is there anyone “leveling up” in the next 12 to 18 months whose career trajectory you need to consider?

Employees come and go for all kinds of reasons, so don’t get too attached to your perfect plan. It’s a balancing act among hope, planning, the present, and the future.

A prospective employee is an abstract concept — a person you can sculpt with your imagination. Then there is your actual candidate pool. You probably don’t have time to wait for the ideal candidate. Most likely, you’ll have to compromise that vision of the perfect new team member. The trick is knowing what warrants compromise. Moreover, it’s about knowing how critical the hire is, based on your current staff needs and workload. Sometimes you can afford to be picky and sometimes you can’t.

I’ll take real-world performance over credentials any day of the week. Most days, I’ll take personality and attitude over skills too. Sometimes categorical skill-level takes a backseat to specific skills or other traits.

For instance, say looking at your team mix tells you that a master plumber would be beneficial. However, looking at your workload, you realize someone with a strong drain cleaning background is required. What if your applicants do not include a master plumber with drain cleaning experience? A mature plumber with 20 years’ experience — all in rough-in work — won’t help fill your drain cleaning gap. It doesn’t matter how many certifications they have. In that situation, a high-performing journeyman with a career full of drain cleaning is a much better candidate.

When in doubt, hire below your skill-level requirement but with the right personality, temperament, and attitude. Give people the chance to shine, and they will often rise to the occasion.

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