The Business

Like Watching Goldfish?

By Lyle R. Hill

It was a quiet and peaceful August Sunday afternoon. I was sitting on my third floor balcony reading the Sunday paper, sipping on an ice tea and thinking that every day should be just like this one. But then it changed … quickly and dramatically.

I live in a condominium project that consists of six buildings. The buildings and grounds were built just about 50 years ago and sit on 27 acres of perfectly manicured landscaping with ponds, fountains, gazebos, a pool, clubhouse and a nearly one mile walking trail through it all. Many of the residents are retired and without exception, they are a friendly and considerate bunch who regularly comments on how fortunate we all are to live in such a fine place. There are former tradespeople, accountants, teachers, businessmen, a few doctors and lawyers and even some contractors. It is a solidly middle class kind of a place. Conversations often start with, “So, what did you do for a living?” After three years of residency, I know quite a few people and I know what they did for a living.

The first truck to arrive after the lights went out was towing a trailer with a back-hoe on it. It pulled up underneath my balcony at about 3:30. It was followed by two more trucks loaded with equipment of all sorts. Soon a crew of four guys in hard hats and safety vests went to work right under my balcony tearing up the street. The sound of the jackhammers and generators replaced the serenity that had existed before their arrival. It was a hot and humid day and the crew was working in the sun. And I couldn’t help but notice that the crew consisted primarily of middle aged men, although the supervisor that would soon arrive appeared to be a woman in her early forties. I would find out a little later that the power had been knocked out, and as the temperature headed north of 90 degrees, a near panic was starting to take place. Somehow, the utility company had determined that the source of the problem was about 5 feet below the pavement less than 20 feet in front of my balcony.

After about 30 minutes, a bit of a crowd formed to watch the crew. I was fascinated by this, and soon found myself watching not the crew, but the crowd watching them. Over the next several hours there was never fewer than seven or eight spectators, and sometimes as many as 12. The spectators bunched up and talked while the guys on the clock worked. There were a few verbal interactions, but not many. It was too hot to sit in a non-air-conditioned apartment, so a large number of people were milling about, watching the work and speculating on how long it might take to fix the problem.

Maybe there’s just something fascinating about someone digging a hole that draws people’s attention. For some, I actually think it’s the physical labor that brings us back to our pioneer roots. While some people try to shirk any type of manual labor, I think there are lots of us who are drawn to it. There’s satisfaction at the end of a day of physical work that an office job just doesn’t afford.

Right now there are jobs out there that require manual labor that pay well, have good benefits, and provide a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. We need to encourage young people to look into trades. It’s not for everyone, but it’s worth pursuing. And heaven knows our industry is in dire need of people willing to work with their hands … and these are not mindless jobs either. Today’s tradesperson has to know more than ever before.

The challenge to our future lies in our ability to recruit, train and keep talented young people working in our trade. We need new ideas and fresh concepts to do this because whatever it is that we have been doing, or not doing, isn’t working. For a lot of owners and managers, their primary recruitment effort centers on “pirating away talent” from their competitors when they need people. This not only raises the cost of doing business for everyone, but it’s also short sighted. Some I have talked with say “it is too expensive to train new people.” I think it’s far more costly in the long run not to train new people. Something is missing … and we need to find it before a very bad situation gets even worse. The fix starts with a dialogue within the industry that I don’t think has truly existed to this point. And we need to get it started. Now!

Earlier today, the day after the big dig, I bumped into a neighbor who I had watched watching the guys from the electric company. I told him I saw him observing the crew and he replied … “yeah, kinda like watching goldfish in a bowl, but something to do I guess.” And, I thought to myself, because those goldfish went into the bowl and did their thing, your lights came on this morning. Thank goodness for the goldfish!

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