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I read a fun post, the “Boilermaker Story,” the other day on LinkedIn that reminded me of the value of knowledge, but also the challenges of getting that unique knowledge where it is most needed, and the business impact when that knowledge is not readily available.

The anecdote goes that there is an old boilermaker who was hired to fix a huge steamship boiler system that was not working well. After listening to the engineer’s description of the problems and asking a few questions, he went to the boiler room.

He looked at the maze of twisting pipes, listened to the thump of the boiler and the hiss of the escaping steam for a few minutes, and felt some pipes with his hands. Then he hummed softly to himself, reached into his overalls and took out a small hammer, and tapped a bright red valve one time. Immediately, the entire system began working perfectly, and the boilermaker went home.

When the steamship owner received a bill for a thousand dollars, he became outraged and complained that the boilermaker had only been in the engine room for fifteen minutes and requested an itemized bill. So the boilermaker sent him a bill that reads as follows:

  • For tapping the valve: $.50
  • For knowing where to tap: $999.50
  • TOTAL: $1,000.00

While humorous and insightful, what this story also points to is the growing skills gap that exists in industry. There are fewer and fewer people who “know where to tap,” and their specific knowledge is leaving the workforce as they do.

Perhaps the solution is not knowing where to tap but instead knowing how to virtualize the workforce so the knowledge of where to tap can be anywhere it’s required, without someone having to pick up a toolbox.