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More Plumbers? Or Reinvented Toilets?

More Plumbers? Or Reinvented Toilets?

“I believe that we need a national PR campaign for skilled labor – like, a big one.” – Mike Rowe

Mike Rowe (of Dirty Jobs fame) recently went in front of Congress and told them we need to train a whole new generation of plumbers. I like Mike’s train of thought. However, I think he’s missing a few critical points:

1) Closing the skills gap is doable for anyone, like, right away. It doesn’t take a new college degree – just spend a few weekends a month at your local hackerspace.

2) These are not our grandparents tools and we need to stop preparing people for our grandparents economy. The maker jobs of tomorrow are not the craftsman jobs of yesterday. The tools have changed – rapid prototyping, social media, crowdfunding, etc – and there’s such a grander opportunity. It’s not about re-skilling people to be plumbers, it’s about inspiring them to re-invent the toilet.

3) This is not a solo journey. There are so many makers around the country and world who are happy to teach these new skills and tools, you just have to ask. I’ve never met a more welcoming group of people.


78 thoughts on “More Plumbers? Or Reinvented Toilets?

  1. John Van Wagenen says:

    The problem isn’t the invention of new technology. These jobs require State licensing. You can’t use new technology if the State doesn’t allow it.

    1. Chris says:

      Exactly! If our goal is to create tradesmen (and women), I think the first thing to do is convince our state governments to remove apprenticeship requirements and instead move to a testing/certification requirement. One advantage is that the state could have a reasonable expiration time-frame that would require re-testing and certification, hopefully providing the applicant with modern and current information on their subject.

      The unions would never allow this to occur, but if we want things to change it is where we have to start.

  2. George Hadley says:

    “1) Closing the skills gap is doable for anyone, like, right away. It doesn’t take a new college degree – just spend a few weekends a month at your local hackerspace.”

    Depends. Want to learn how to solder a circuit? Great, head on down to , you’ll be doing SMD in no time. Want to learn something incredibly difficult and sophisticated (RF Circuit Design comes to mind, though many other examples exist), you really need to go to college (and sorry, but Open Courseware, in the opinion of this poster, is really not going to cut it).

    1. George Hadley says:

      “Great, head on down to _insert hackerspace name here_”

      Stupid formatting issues

    2. David Lang says:

      You’re right – it definitely depends.

      But I’d also hate to let RF circuit design scare people from thinking they won’t be able to find their own maker niche.

      I interpreted Mike’s talk as though we need to start putting more value on the trades. That everybody loses when we stop valuing good, honest work. I think the first step in the re-skilling process is making it exciting (because it can be!), like Gates is trying to do. The second step is to make safe places for people to make the transition, like hackerspaces. If we can get more people to take those first two steps, then I think we’ll be much closer to the goal of valuing good, honest work. And some people might find that they need to keep learning – all the way to RF circuit design.

    3. Hux says:

      I thought hackerspaces were for crazy skilled people to hang out and show of their awesome robots etc? Considering my pathetic soldering efforts I haven’t really considered going to one. Not even sure there is one near here..

  3. Joe says:

    I disagree with your hypothesis. While its great to pretend that robots will fix our toilets using 3d printers in a hackerspace, that is just wrong. There is far too much existing infrastructure that relies on the current technology/implementation that will continue to need service and installation for years to coe.

    Making a LED widget at a hackerspace is awesome, but making a proper joint in copper inside my dry wall is best left to people who spent more than 2 minutes in a hackerspace using a torch.

    Don’t get me wrong I love tinkering and building but by saying you can learn to be a good plumber in a few weekends is foolish. Yes you can be mediocre, but thats not enough.

    There is a big difference between having an idea how to fix something and actually knowing how to fix it.

    But that is just my opinion.


    1. David Lang says:

      Ok. This is going to to sound contradictory, but I agree with you. I agree with Mike Rowe, too.

      I think we need more people in the trades, but I also think we need more people taking advantage of all the new tools. I don’t see it as trades vs. LED widgets. I see it as maker jobs (trades + LED widgets) vs. unfulfilling cubicle jobs and unemployment.

      In my own maker journey, I happened to find a weird niche with underwater robots using (mostly) laser cutters and microcontrollers, but I gained a whole new level of respect for welding and metal working.

      I think framing the opportunity as a lack of plumbers does a disservice to the joys of making. More good, honest work and less shuffling papers and leveraged speculation.

    2. Phil Burgess says:

      In all seriousness: considering the results I’ve gotten from entirely too many ”professional” plumbers and handymen, 2 minutes training in a hackerspace using a torch would be a huge step up.

  4. eggyknap says:

    Two things: first, it wasn’t all that recent (back in May, of last year), and as I saw it, part of his point was not just that people need to make stuff, but that people need to be respect folks who do actual work, like digging holes, fixing furnaces, unclogging toilets, and the like. People who didn’t get a college degree, but who work hard, and understand that sometimes someone has to get dirty, no matter how smart everyone thinks they are.

    1. David Lang says:

      Ah ha. That makes sense.

      I first saw it a few weeks ago, and the Gates competition struck me as something that was missing from Mike’s appeal – the real opportunity and excitement that goes along with making.

  5. The world is going to be different » Why Aren't You Outraged? says:

    […] More Plumbers? Or Reinvented Toilets? “I believe that we need a national PR campaign for skilled labor – like, a big one.” – Mike Rowe Mike Rowe (of Dirty Jobs fame) recently went in front of Congress and told t… […]

  6. Ian McKellar (@ian) says:

    I think you’re part of the problem. Assuming that I can spend “weekends a month at your local hackerspace” and gain the skills of an experienced, well trained tradesman is frankly insulting. The fact that our society gives more respect to someone with a philosophy degree than to an experienced mechanic or carpenter is part of our denial of Real Work.

    We need to get over our obsession with four-year college degrees and start valuing useful skills.

    This is where I’d normally break into a rant about American class segregation, but I’ll spare you that.

    1. David Lang says:

      Fair enough.

      I think the time investment to become an experienced, well trained tradesman is far more than a few weekends a month. Far, far more.

      And I agree with the four-year degree problem.

      But the question – in my mind, anyways – is, “Ok, so now what? Where do we go from here?”

      I think there are a lot of people who need to re-skill themselves, myself included. For many of them, especially the ones whose shop classes had been eliminated by the time they got to high school and whose four year degrees saddled them with student debt, it can be hard to imagine building a career in the trades.

      I think a few weekends a month at a local hackerspace is a great start. It opens the window for a larger transition. It’s a safe environment to begin the re-skilling process.

  7. tetlow says:

    You can’t build a tradesman in a hackerspace. You can give a person a wealth of skills that will help them unleash their own creativity and enable them to help themselves, but that’s still a long way from what’s required to work in a trade.

    Just because you can run a machine and produce something doesn’t make you a machinist, and just because you’re a machinist you’re not a tool maker. There’s a wealth of irreplaceable knowledge that comes from apprenticing 40 hours a week for a few years straight that you’re not going to get from 8 hours a week in a hackerspace spending your time spread across a lot of different disciplines…

  8. Jason says:

    I agree with the general consensus here that you seem to have missed the mark on what Rowe was saying. In your first point, you suggest a few weekends a month at a hackerspace over a college degree – a few weekends a month is nothing compared to real vocational training, and it is that vocational training that Rowe is advocating rather than a college degree. With your third point, it seems as though you’re referring mostly to hobbyists, while Rowe is referring to professionals. It’s not enough that you might be able to unclog your own toilet or wire up a dimmer switch for your living room, we need more *professionals* in these fields.

    As far as your second point, the tools of the trades aren’t changing that significantly. To use your example, re-inventing the toilet requires engineering knowledge – but once that toilet’s been reengineered, we still need traditional plumbers to install, maintain, and repair the toilet and its support systems. Rowe’s argument is wholly separate of re-inventing the toilet; his argument is that even with a re-invented toilet, we still don’t have enough skilled tradesmen (and are losing them to retirement quickly) to take that new invention from a CAD model to an actual installed toilet in someone’s home.

    1. David Lang says:

      At this point, I also agree with the general consensus ;)

      Everyone agrees with Mike, right? I mean, it’s just the facts. We need more people in the trades.

      I just have a slightly different perspective on how to should package the whole lifestyle up – try and make people more excited about it, and also make it less daunting to get started. I think it’s something much bigger than people just sucking it up and doing the tough/dirty jobs. I think it’s about making heroes out of the people who work hard and make/fix things. Tim Anderson should be a household name: (

      As someone who’s admittedly a new and amateurish maker, I’ve got a perspective from the other side of the fence. I was really intimidated by the thought of re-skilling myself. It sucks when you come to the realization that your education was probably a waste of time, and that all you’re really qualified to do is sit in front of a computer screen. It really sucks.

      I think a lot of people (probably folks who don’t read this blog) feel intimidated as well. However, I think they have the opportunity to make a transition, and I think once they do, they will really like it. They might even get excited enough to learn RC circuit design, or decide that they just want to make knives, or become a plumber.

      I think that everyone has some level of maker in them. And I think solving the problem of having more value given to good, honest work and finding more tradespeople will take everyone tapping into that maker-ness.

  9. Steve Sparks says:

    Not everyone is an inspired maker.
    Judge Smails said it when he said “The world needs ditch diggers, too.”
    It’s okay to spend your life as a plumber, if your ambitions are modest and you like working with your hands.
    Teach your kids THAT.

    1. eggyknap says:

      Even if your ambitions aren’t modest, it’s okay to be a plumber. If you’re a plumber, you may not become filthy rich, but perhaps your ambitions don’t need riches. You’ll certainly become filthy, but perhaps your ambitions don’t need cleanliness. We need to abandon the idea that everyone needs to go to college (whether or not they can afford it, and whether or not their degree is actually useful). We should also abandon the idea that anyone who has to get dirty and tired for a living is somehow less important or less acceptable than pasty, overweight white-collar desk jockeys. But finally we must abandon the idea that a person’s employment is the full measure of who they are.

  10. Chris C says:

    The point of the whole meeting was that society needs plumbers, ditch diggers, welders, machine operators and other such trades to keep us a civilized country. College has been pushed as the better and more important/honorable way to go. That is not true. Can a finance major install or diagnose your A/C? Can a political science major weld the braces for a new damn? There are basic needs of society that are met by tradesmen. Unfortunately we see these as less important than a bank teller or psychologist. We need to bring the pride back that used to be associated with trades. Skilled labor built this country and will continue to be needed as long as we wish to build a better and more civilized society. PS…. this was not a recent event. The meeting happened over a year ago.

  11. Henryk Zajac says:

    Definitely more plumbers

  12. Robert Sumrall says:

    To David Lang
    As someone who went to school during the 1950’s and 60’s, hopefully your thoughts on all of this will change a 180 deg. as you mature. Mike Rowe is correct that people like myself are now retiring and many of you young folk are not in the position to pick up the slack. This is not your fault, but the system (gov schools). For too long schools have pushed students to college and not the trades, and it has finally caught up with us. My feeling is that all students, girls and boys, be taught skills, welding, plumbing, electrical wiring, electrical tech, and many others from grade 3 or 4 until graduation grade 12. I was lucky in that my father had a large shop at home and by age 12 I was a fairly good welder.
    In addition to this all students after graduation should spend 2 years in the military. This would take these kids out of dads house and put them in a structered envioroment where they could continue to grow and serve the country. The U.S. military does a lot more things than killing people. Ask the people in Port a Prince.

    1. David Lang (@davidtlang) says:

      I agree the generational issue is huge. If had told my grandfather I wanted to “make” stuff for a living – that I was planning to re-skill myself. He would have looked at me like I was stupid. Of course I would be a maker! It was second nature for his generation, just another aspect of being a human being.

      But when I look around at folks in my generation, that isn’t obvious anymore. They are all much more comfortable in front of a screen – computer, TV, or video games – than they are with a table saw or a mill machine.

      As you say, a lot of this is systemic. We all agree that we need a new system, right? I just think we need to create a welcoming place for folks, like me, to make that transition.

      Instead of telling us that we’re “part of the problem” or “can’t pick up the slack” why don’t you spend time teaching us!

      Is it because people don’t want to learn? I don’t think so. I just think it needs to be presented in a way that’s exciting, because it really is! I think it starts by showing people laser cutters and 3D printers during their free time on the weekends. They are easy to use. They have a screen (which is something we’re very comfortable with) and they’re easy to learn to use. That’s the gateway drug.

      Once you start down the path, people quickly become interested in acquiring skills like welding, metalworking, and fixing everything.

  13. Trav says:

    I was one of those people pushed into going to college. I should have never gone. Now I have no college degree and don’t have the time to work to support my family and try to go back to school. I wish I would have spent the time I wasted at college in a tech school.

    I think one of the required classes that schools should have is guidance counseling. We had a counselor, I never talked to them except to get my ACT scores. Schools give so many aptitude tests to make sure that you’ve learned what you are supposed to know. But I think they should give personality/interest tests to help you see where you want to go.

  14. David Lang (@davidtlang) says:

    I’m taking a lot of heat here, and rightfully so.

    However, I do want to make the case for re-inventing the toilet. Thomas Crapper invented that 200 years ago. It’s a colossal waste of water and requires “complex and expensive disposal systems and wastewater facilities required for proper treatment.”

    So before we go racing to train all those plumbers, I think we need to think about what we’re fixing. Is it the right problem?

    1. tetlow says:

      Bill Gates agrees. The toilet is a topic that no one wants to talk about and sanitation is one of the primary reasons that 40% of the people in the world don’t have access to clean water.

    2. CG says:

      I think this meme illustrates the case for reinventing the toilet rather well:

  15. Tommy Phillips says:

    What a great dialogue!

    I’m going to quote myself from my comment the other day on “MAKE Asks: Intro to Maker Culture” (

    “Working as a programmer and DBA, I just got more abstract all the time. I stopped playing with circuits. I threw out my unfinished plastic models. Oh, sure, I had excuses. I was traveling a lot for work, life is busy enough without tinkering with non-essentials, etc.

    “It wasn’t until I was nearing forty that I began to realize just how out of touch I was. I started working with wood in my garage, acquiring tools, and learning how much of life I had shut myself away from. And how unfair I had been to my brother, who works in plumbing and HVAC.”

  16. David Lang (@davidtlang) says:

    Ian chimes in on Facebook:

    David – the Maker vs. Tradesman debate reminds me about the discussion about the crossbow vs. the longbow in medieval warfare. To summarize the debate, despite the technical sophistication of the crossbow, the longbow was technically superior in essentially every way. The major deciding factor in its use in warfare, however, was that a longbowman required years of training and practice while a crossbow could be given to an inexperienced peasant and be trained on it in a a half an hour. The economics ended up working in favour of a technically inferior solution that could be deployed by the masses.

  17. Robert Sumrall says:

    To David Lang
    I am now in retirement and living in Thailand partly due to cost if living. Life here for me is much like living in the states in the 1960’s. I can no longer train the people of your generation. If the people of your generation want to learn the trades that keep the USA going, there are plenty of schools that offer these skills. Much as I despise trade unions, the one thing that they do offer, is training for people to learn many of the skills that are needed in today’s society. Use the unions to get an education, but then drop out of their program. Plan for your future, and retirement because the government and no one else is going to do this for you. Thee government and the unions are both going to lie to you, so take care of yourself. Good Luck

  18. Chris says:

    I completely agree with Mike Rowe’s comments. I’m one generation removed from a guy like his grandfather. I have 20+ years as a woodworker and machinist, and still find my own skills far inferior to my father’s, because I came of age as a craftsman during the age of “buying” vs “building”. As a woodworker, I can build almost anything, but I’m not sure how to make boards out of a tree. and as a pattenmaker and machinist, I’ve never actually cast a metal part. My dad was neither, and did both well.

    How exactly is crowdfunding and social media a replacement for actual experience and skill? Somebody still needs to know HOW to do the work, regardless of how you connect with them. And rapid prototyping”? I’m reminded of a guy at my local “hackerspace” — his project was held up by a backlog at the laser cutter: a plywood part that could have been cut out in 5 minutes on a tablesaw. He didn’t have that skill, so it simply didn’t occur to him.

    We have a cultural bias that devalues manual skills as easily acquired and therefore less worthy. In careers as both a skilled tradesperson, and later as a computer professional, I’d say it’s a toss-up as to which requires more education, but the blue collar work required way more skill and ability. Sadly, my entry level IT job in 1997 was a lateral salary move from my 20+ year career in the trades. That’s an unfortunate message to be sending to our young people who want to work with their hands and their brains.

    A lot of people spent a lot of time and energy teaching me the skills I have today. When I changed jobs in ’97, I removed all that knowledge from the labor pool. I’m just one guy, not a big loss, but that’s happening every day as older workers retire or like me, workers change jobs to something “better”, and they are not being replaced by workers with equal skills. It’s no mystery at all why American manufacturing is struggling to find qualified workers.

  19. Glonim says:

    I think Mike and David are both right. Practical skills will always be useful and definitely don’t need a college degree to be learned. On the other hand, high tech thinking skills will also be needed as maker spaces expand. Overall, I expect the future to have more maker spaces like David says and also have plenty of toilets.Toilets will always need to be fixed but reinventing the toilet could make fixing them easier which means plumbers could spend more time doing something else while getting their jobs done faster. In the end this seems like a win win situation for both sides of the argument.

  20. Rob says:

    Mike Rowe’s point was that we need to stop disparaging the skilled trades and address a coming skilled labor shortage . He pointed out in Alabama, one third of the skilled tradesman are over 55. He said that higher education has been so over promoted that no one is actually being educated to be welders, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, etc.

    Your points are based on the same condescending attitude that is discouraging anyone from entering a trades apprenticeship.

    to quote “Closing the skills gap is doable for anyone, like, right away. It doesn’t take a new college degree – just spend a few weekends a month at your local hackerspace.”

    Yeah, a few weeks practice is the same as a multiple year apprenticeship (Hell, no!). I re-plumbed a bathroom by myself. I know how to sweat pipe, glue pvc pipe together, etc (not by training). The job took my spare time for about three weeks, a skilled plumber would have spent a day at most doing the same work. Being shown how to do things in bits and pieces is not a substitute for a trade apprenticeship.

    to quote
    “These are not our grandparents tools and we need to stop preparing people for our grandparents economy. The maker jobs of tomorrow are not the craftsman jobs of yesterday. The tools have changed – rapid prototyping, social media, crowdfunding, etc – and there’s such a grander opportunity. It’s not about re-skilling people to be plumbers, it’s about inspiring them to re-invent the toilet.”

    I read the toilet article. The two winning designs are ones that are self contained, they still use water, and ones has a solar powered doohicky to treat the waster. Could I point out that my grandparents and parents had self contained toilet systems. My grandparents/parents had a well on one side of the yard and a solar powered septic system on the other side of the yard. My own household system is both simpler and more complex than my grandparent, my system depends on being supplied with treated water from a remote source, and my waste is sent to a remote treatment plant. The winning toilet designs move the septic treatment back to my house, the impact on needing a plumber is likely to increase with the new design. New toilet designs will still need skilled plumbers to fix and maintain them.

    I do not want someone showing up to my house who while working on a non-functioning toilet, wants to prototype a new septic flange, or talk to his buddies about the problem he is having, and wants me to talk to my neighbours about paying him to design a new toilet; I just need him to fix the toilet.

    Stop disparaging trades people and stop thinking that a few discussions with makers is equivalent to formal skills training.

    1. David Lang (@davidtlang) says:

      Hi Rob,

      I should have chosen my words more carefully. You’re right. I should have said “starting” to close the skills gap is available. It certainly doesn’t amount to years of apprenticeship.

      I don’t agree with you, however, that my perspective is the same condescending problem. I agree with you that we have a cultural problem. I came to that personal realization over a year ago, and have spent the time since then trying my best to rectify it. Because of that, I have gained a whole new level of respect for craftsmanship and the trades. I look up to tradesman more than anyone.

      I never disparaged trades people. I would never do that. My big quip is that Mike is packaging it wrong. Saying that these are dirty jobs and somebody has to do it is, in my opinion, a bad way of getting people excited and involved. Restoring the cultural value on hard work and craftsmanship is going to involve making them more exciting options with lots of opportunity, which they are, I think. Giving people access to the gateway tools like 3D printers and laser cutters, something screen-addicted folks are very comfortable with, seems like the best first step to me.

      As I’ve said in other comments, I think it’s easy to complain and difficult to offer solutions. What ideas do you have for restoring the cultural value on manual work?

      Personally, I don’t think waiting on congress to solve this issue is the answer.

  21. Rob Giseburt says:

    My father was a blue-collar worker, before retirement. Her worked the slaughterhouse, killing hogs all day. Then, when that job was eliminated, he went to washing bones to make into bonemeal (think glue, Jell-O, and dog food) in giant factory-sized machines.

    At home he had a machine shop, pieced together over the years. Some of which was bought off of the guys who were retiring from the slaughterhouse and glue factories. See, in those days, as I’m told, when the machinist retired, the tools were his. They were his prize for decades of hard and dangerous service repairing the factory equipment. Back then, and I don’t meant that long ago, they made the parts to fix the machines on the spot whenever possible.

    Anyway, my father always wanted to be a machinist. He taught himself how, in his spare time. He was also a mechanic, but not by trade. My older brother had two VW beetles: One was the working one, one was the One Bring Repaired. (There were a few parts cars too.) Through the week the two of them would work on one, while my brother drove the other 500 miles a week to go to work.

    They were able to pull one engine out, an put another one in in less than 30 minutes. He knew how repair a broken drive shaft, or repair stripped out spark-plug threads on an engine block.

    My father was never a machinist, or a plumber, or a electrician. But he could fix all of those in our house, and did. He built most of our house from scratch.

    My brother is now a contractor. He rebuilt the upper floor on my house, including framing, plumbing, electrical, sheet rock, and paint. He even refinished the hard wood floors. (I paid him, of course.)

    I’m 16 years younger than my brother. I was too young to learn the machining and auto repair as well. I can fix many things in a car, but I usually don’t. I take it to the shop. I don’t have time, honestly.

    I program computers. It pays well. I can mostly afford to have someone else fix my car more than I can afford to take the time to do it.

    But, I don’t want that to happen to my kids. When they’re old enough I’ll buy them each a go-kart and we’ll take it apart, like my dad did with me. We’ll take their bikes apart too, like my grandfather did. We’ll fix them, improve them, and put them back together.

    And we’ll do the same with their computers, and phones, and tablets. We’ll start with their toy cars. They’ll know how a H-bridge works as well as what a cotter pin is.

    They can be plumbers, if they want. Or computer programmers. Or photographers. Or hairdressers. Or scientists.

    As long as they know and can teach *their* kids about how these things work, and that they can fix them, or improve upon them, or invent new ones.

    It’s the best I feel I can do.

  22. MAKE | Your Comments says:

    […] the piece More Plumbers? Or Reinvented Toilets?, Joe says: I disagree with your hypothesis. While its great to pretend that robots will fix our […]

  23. CG says:

    I am suprised nobody has yet brought up the book Shopcraft as Soulcraft. I randomly picked it up off the shelf because of the picture of an old BMW motorcycle in front of a barn, and I found it to be a really good read, especially for this site’s audience. The publisher’s comments sum it up pretty well:

    “Those of us who sit in an office often feel a lack of connection to the material world, a sense of loss, and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. For anyone who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing.”

    1. Tommy Phillips says:

      I love this book! If I had read it when I was in high school, I guarantee my life would have been different, and probably better.

  24. Brian says:

    As a person who enjoys making, building, etc…, I am now realizing how much I’ve forgotten from when I was young. When I was much younger, I remember rebuilding engines, building go carts, roofing, laying block, among other things. It has been so long since I have consistently done these activities, then when I try them now, I feel like I have no idea what to do. So to reintroduce myself, I work on a different trade every summer, and focus on that trade, while still dabbling in the others from previous summers. It has been like rediscovering my childhood.

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