By Brian Van Bower
During the past few years, I’ve come to the stark realization that there are too few quality craftspeople in most geographical areas of our country. And it’s not just the watershaping trades: The same holds true for most areas of the greater construction industry as well.
That’s why, when you’re looking for people who can execute highly customized work and are willing to take chances and stretch what they do, it’s definitely a seller’s market out there. More than any other challenge I face in my own business, finding people who can consistently deliver on the promise of quality I make to my customers is becoming tougher as time goes by.
The hard reality is that, for many people in the trades, it’s easier to do three ordinary jobs in a week than it is to do one challenging project over a month. I’m starting to think that this a new example of the age-old quality vs. quantity paradox. And frankly, it seems to me that coming down more often on the side of quantity is one of the things that threatens to doom our industry to mediocrity.
NOT JUST THE BUCKS
For the past couple of years, Lars Wiren (my partner in our construction company) and I repeatedly have asked ourselves why we’re constantly running up against this lack of qualified craftspeople and have talked at length about how to deal with it.
As we’ve looked at this problem, it’s become clear to us that the driving force here is not money, as one might expect.
It would be easy to understand that a tile contractor, for example, would gravitate toward the more profitable course if he or she was really making more money doing three cheap jobs instead of one expensive project. By contrast, however, what we’ve found is that many craftspeople actually turn away from high-paying jobs with better margins in favor of far more competitive volume work that carries narrower margins and more headaches.
If it’s not the money, what’s driving the decision? I think it’s familiarity and the desire of many people to stay within comfortable boundaries of operation. After all, why put yourself in a situation that forces you to learn? There’s risk and even discomfort involved with stretching the limits of your own capabilities.
This complacency of craft is, I believe, further reinforced by the way we regard people who work with their hands in this country. In other places, particularly in Europe and parts of Asia, craftspeople are seen as artisans and enjoy prestige in their communities. They work hard to build their reputations for excellence, and the pride they have in their work shows in everything they do.
I don’t mean to sound unpatriotic, but the cold truth is that we in the United States don’t share this value system. In fact, a huge proportion of the craftspeople I know view the work they’re doing with their hands as an activity that fills time as they wait to ascend to a job behind a desk. Few “ambitious” people in this country view activities such as plumbing, tile or stone work as lifetime pursuits that, in and of themselves, elevate practitioners to a position of respect.
That’s a shame, in my opinion. It’s too bad for the craftspeople themselves, and it’s too bad for the designers and builders of custom watershapes who would benefit from the presence of a class of tradespeople aspiring to become artists.
A MATTER OF STANDARDS
Chances are good that similar problems exist in other branches of the construction trades, but I come from the swimming pool industry and so will use it to illustrate the trouble that comes with a lack of pride in craft. It’s rough reading, but I’m singling this sector out because it touches most closely on my business and is what I know best.
To put it bluntly, the swimming pool industry embodies this “complacency of craft” in abundance, and nowhere so clearly as in the “standards” that have been promulgated by its trade associations and supposedly are to be applied in the field. Take the National Spa and Pool Institute’s “Workmanship Standards,” for example. It’s what I call the “How much can I screw up and still get away with it?” standard.
Yes, I’m certain similar documents exist in other construction sectors, and I’m certain this notion of “minimum standards” serves some purpose in a legal sense, but while these documents may effectively keep people out of court or may be used to defend lawsuits effectively, they do little or nothing to foster a standard of excellence among the trades participating in most watershaping projects.
Not to harp on the point, but “workmanship standards” in our country are designed to help the trades avoid litigation, not to build pride or prestige. So instead of quality-based industry standards, watershapers and custom contractors of all stripes adhere to what can only be called informal standards that radiate solely from the expectations of astute clients.
Many of these clients operate under the natural assumption that if they pay more, they’ll get better quality in return. And as the world becomes smaller and clients and potential clients witness the caliber of work being performed in other countries and become more educated about what quality really means, a much sharper desire for true excellence will flow back to our shores.
The ability or inability to meet those expectations has everything to do with whether or not these clients report positively on their experiences in acquiring watershapes to other potential clients. And it all comes back to having craftspeople on hand who can get the job done in a way that leaves the customer smiling.
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
Regrettably, there’s no quick, certain answer when it comes to this shortage of artisans working in our trade.
In my own business, my partner and I have often considered going overseas to recruit established artisans into our market. And that idea seems less and less far-fetched every time I travel abroad and see the way people view skilled manual labor in other countries: It definitely re-ignites my interest in tapping into that pool of talent!
But a more viable answer on a market-wide basis throughout the country is to work toward adopting a value system that places greater emphasis on quality.
Ultimately, that effort must begin with the “E word” – education. Too many trades in this country are learned strictly through on-the-job training. Indeed, we lack any sort of apprenticeship programs for most of the skills required specifically to build watershapes.
Failing a wholesale revamping of the way we look at craft work and the unlikely revival of the apprenticeship concept, I’d be all in favor of professional trade education and certification that targets artistry in watershaping skills from tiling and forming to plastering, lighting and more.
Another key to the quality issue is on-site project management. Fact is, even high-end builders working with known, good-quality subcontractors need to spend more time on site addressing specific issues of craft. That’s the way my partner does it: Lars is out there every day, and if he doesn’t like what he sees, he’ll demand that the work be done over. In many cases, he’ll jump right in and do the work himself alongside the craftspeople.
And lest anyone think that any movement toward greater quality in workmanship is a trickle-down thing that must necessarily begin on the high-end, let me counter that I think the true breeding ground for this change is in mid-range projects.
Yes, wealthy clients can afford excellence and demand it, but there’s no reason the $40,000 project should not be built to a higher standard. These watershapes may not have all the bells and whistles and fine details and materials of high-end projects, but they should have sound hydraulics, square and plumb forming, sound installation practices and even a modestly custom design.
In my own experience with mid-range pools, I’ve found that these customers can be sold on quality construction and quality materials. In fact, clients with a $30,000 budget quite often will grow that budget when presented with ideas they like. On the flip side, I don’t know too many people who would opt for inferior work for a nominally lower price.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
To be sure, this whole picture is a frustrating one, and I’m the first to admit that I really don’t know what the “answer” is. But I do know, in talking to watershapers and other contractors across the country, that this shortage of quality craftspeople is real. Time and time again I commiserate with colleagues who just can’t find good people who are dedicated to maintaining high standards.
So, what do you think? I’d love to hear your views and how you ensure an adherence to quality on the jobsite. I’d also like to hear any thoughts you have on how we as an industry can develop a class of tradespeople who see the value in becoming artisans in their chosen crafts.
Send me an email or a letter with any insights you have. Maybe we can work together to find a solution.