Are You a Carpenter or a Lather… Or Something Else?

Good question. I think—Wait, what is a lather? Even better than that, what is an Interior Systems Mechanic?

Really, does anyone know what an interior systems mechanic (ISM) does? Well, you may not, unless of course you were to log onto the Industry Training Authority (ITA) website and click on Red Seal Trades. But even there you would still be a little confused about what is going on with this trade’s name. It says Lather/Interior Systems Mechanic right there on the webpage but then calls it the Wall and Ceiling program.

So, we go to the construction job site (where they say all the work is going to be when these Baby Boomers retire) to ask, but it is still a mystery. Surely it would be here, where people work along side ISMs every day, that one would know how to identify one. The funny thing is, I’ve walked up to an interior systems mechanic and asked him what they call his trade, and I’ve had plenty of funny looks when asking, but nobody is giving me the answer I’m looking for.

Maybe it’s a small trade, and there just aren’t many people doing it? Wrong—there are several thousand of them in BC alone.

Maybe there aren’t that many of them on a job at one time? Wrong—they are quite often the largest crew on most commercial sites.

Maybe it’s a dying trade and their work is going obsolete? Wrong—More products and installations get added to the trade all the time, especially since general contractors move towards project management.

What, then, do they call people on the job site doing the lather/ ISM trade? They call them by the slang term “drywaller,” which is a vague description of what they actually do. Drywall is just one small portion of the trade; in fact, I was called “the drywaller” several times in my career even when it had been years since I had even installed a piece.

Is it normal for trades to have slang names on the actual job site for easy reference to each other? Yes, many trades will answer to different names; for example, an electrician is often referred to as “sparky” and the HVAC guys as “tin bashers.”

The reality is, the difference between ours and other trades is both the general public and the construction sector generally know what the electrician and other trades do. The same isn’t so with the “drywaller”; everyone just assumes all they do is drywall. Some people even get that mixed up with the drywall finisher or taper, which is, again, a whole other trade.

The general public assumes it is the carpenter that builds all those walls and ceilings. They assume the carpenter framed the wall and the drywaller came in just to put the Gyproc/Sheetrock on.

What they don’t realize is now-a-days most of the carpenters will only build the formwork and general structural work for pouring concrete. Once the slab is poured on commercial jobs that is it for the carpenter and the lather/ISM takes over all the framing duties and much more.

Carpenters still do the framing on most home construction projects up to three storeys high, like houses and small townhomes, and even some small apartment projects. But that is mostly because of BC’s booming lumber industry and the architects’ and/or engineers’ unwillingness to change to steel. In most situations, a combination of wood and steel would be the best— the floors and stairs could be done in wood and the interior framing of walls and ceilings done in steel. Both have their merits.

In larger projects, both commercial and residential, once the concrete is poured it is the lather/ISM that does all the work in the framing and ceiling areas along with envelope construction, access floors, acoustical components like insulation, fire proofing, and more. Carpenters don’t do any of this work, but in the general public they get credit for all of it.

The last statement must be true when looking at trade school enrollment, as we have said before we need new trades people to do all the work as the Boomers retire. But when students are looking at building into the future, they enroll and go to school for carpentry at huge numbers (over 6,000 per year) and we who do this work (wall and ceiling installers, lather, or interior systems mechanics) get around 100 students/apprentices a year. That doesn’t seem right.

We need to address the problem with a better awareness of who and what we do, and bring some pride back into the trade by encouraging our apprentices to get their schooling done and get their certificate with the Red Seal endorsement. Then maybe, just maybe, we will get the same respect as the mighty carpenter.