Taking the Work We Do to the Highest Level Possible

September 30, 2000
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I’ve been following the ongoing articles (Joanna Turpin’s “Why Techs Leave” series and James J. Siegel’s article in the September 11 issue), as well as the letters addressing the technician shortage in the hvacr industry. One thing I would like to add to all that’s been said is that until we find a way to change society's perception of those who work in technical professions, we’ll continue to experience a shortage of qualified technicians dedicated to their craft.

The following explains what I mean.

He was the first person to get to me as soon as I finished speaking and “Hey Jim, I’ve just got to tell you what happened to me,” was what he said as he walked toward me.

Now, I know from experience that when somebody makes a point to talk to me immediately after I’m finished with a presentation, two things have happened. One, something I said had a profound effect on them, and two, they feel that what they have to say will either further validate the opinion I presented during my talk, or the opinion they’re about to present will be a polar opposite to mine.

In either case, they want to be the first in line to tell me what it is they have to say.

I had just finished delivering the keynote address at a convention attended by service professionals, mostly self-employed service professionals who not only run a business, but also, as we say, turn the wrench. And the gentleman who stood before me fit that profile to a T. He had been in the service business roughly the same number of years I had been on the planet at the time, and had completed countless service calls during his career, practicing his chosen craft. And he said he just had to talk to me and tell me what had happened to him.

The emotion in his voice, the look on his face, and what I’m sure for just a moment were misty eyes, told me that I had touched a nerve with him. My talk was on the subject of professionalism and how society sometimes perceives people who provide technical and mechanical services as part of their job.

I had talked about several things. I said that technicians were, like anybody else in a work environment, looking not only for fair pay and benefits, but also an opportunity to grow personally and professionally. I mentioned that I was unhappy with a recent television expose that used a hidden camera to catch some dishonest technicians in a sting operation. The reason I was unhappy, I said, was because this particular television program called ten service companies to look at their rigged equipment, then proceeded to hammer home the point that they had caught two of those service technicians in a rip-off.

“If they want to show those two guys who tried to sell the customer something they didn’t need, then fine,” I said. “But then,” I continued, “I want equal time for those eight service people who did the right thing.”

And I meant it. It was my opinion that if that television show decided to spend fifteen minutes repeating a grainy video, while explaining in detail how two technicians acted in either a dishonest or incompetent manner, then they should have devoted equal time to profiling the eight people who did the right thing. I meant it because I took that kind of thing personally. My Dad was “the refrigerator man” from the time he started in the service business in the late 40s until the mid 70s when Phosgene gas, the by-product of exposing refrigerants to an open flame, took its toll on his lungs.

I took it personally not only because my father was a service technician, but also because I too, had spent a good deal of my working life running my six, seven or eight service calls a day. Yeah, I was “the air conditioning guy” and I took it personally when I thought people who “worked with their hands” were being treated with less respect than the deserved. Sure, I was at that point in my life, more of an instructor, writer and consultant than a technician due to the absent-minded fellow who drove right through a stop sign in near-perfect timing with my path of travel down a rural highway. But I still took that kind of thing personally.

So I waited for him to begin. To tell me what it was he had to tell me. “You might not want to believe this,” he said, “but it’s true.”

He told me his story. He was in a customer’s home accomplishing an equipment repair, and nearby, the customer was having one of those parental challenges we all seem to experience from time to time. She was in the dining room with her son, who was protesting that he didn’t want to do his homework. The conflict went on as you would expect. The son, like a typical pre-teen would tend to do, complaining that he didn’t want to do the homework, and mom, being a parent, explaining in no uncertain terms that he had to do it. And that no matter what he would rather be doing, he was going to do that homework.

Then came the point in the conflict when the mother hit upon what she thought would be the coup de grace idea of how to motivate her son to do that homework. Without looking toward the technician who had come to her home to solve her service problem, she pointed in his direction, then asked her son, “Do you want to wind up like him?”

He was right. I really didn’t want to believe his story. I didn’t want to believe it because it was hard for me to imagine somebody being that callous about another human being. I didn’t want to believe it because I knew that as a self-employed technical professional who took the time to grow his business and run it in the right way, this technician was making as much money as any respected “professional” in his community. I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew he was telling it to me just as it had happened.

He went on to say that when he heard what his customer had said, he didn’t know what to do. Even after he had completed the repair and was driving away in his truck, he still wasn’t sure of the emotions he was experiencing. And as he was telling me his story, I wasn’t sure what to say about what he was experiencing either. But, after thinking about it later, I believe I figured it out.

I believe that he went though a full range of emotions when he came to a sudden realization of what his customer thought of him. I think he went from shock and disbelief, to denial, to sadness, then to anger, and finally to acceptance. And, yes, I know that the range of emotions I’ve listed are the same ones that a person goes through when they experience a profound loss in their life. But I’m convinced they apply here because that’s what I think happened. I believe that he held a certain opinion of what this customer thought of him, especially since he had done repair work for her in the past. And I believe that the loss he experienced was that the belief of what he thought was true was shattered. So he went through the same range of emotions that a person goes through when they experience any loss.

Which brings me to the point I want to make. Sure, there are elements of this story that are unpleasant for those who’s work is of a technical or mechanical nature. But that doesn’t mean we have to wallow in that unpleasantness. After all, the last emotion on the list is acceptance. So accept it already. Accept it and move on with the knowledge that there are some people in our society who either purposefully or absentmindedly hold a certain opinion about people who make their living in a technical profession. Accept it, and resolve to educate those who are educable on the subject. And leave those who can’t or won’t be educated on the subject to their own beliefs and opinions, and their own self-esteem issues. That’s their problem, not ours.

And how do I propose that we educate those who are educable? By doing the same thing that the technician I’ve been telling you about did. Even though what he heard from that customer that day was unpleasant, it didn’t stop him from doing his job. He finished the repair as you would expect a skilled, experienced craftsman to do, then he collected for his services and left. And his story and his actions should inspire us to conduct ourselves in the same professional manner. I would venture to say that we should be inspired to take the work we do, whether it’s technical or mechanical in nature, to the highest level possible.

  • Work with your hands, and you’re a mechanic.
  • Work with your hands and your head, and you’re a technician.
  • Work with your hands, your head and your heart, and you’re an artist.
  • Jim Johnson heads up Technical Training Associates, a Sahuarita, AZ, firm that provides training for the hvacr and other trade industries. He began his trade career in 1968. After working as a technician for 10 years, he turned to teaching, spending the next decade as a full-time instructor teaching electricity, refrigeration and HVAC/R servicing at a private trade school, before moving on to serve as an administrator at a community college until 1996.

    Publication Date: 10/02/2000

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