| I picked the wrong profession. I'm talking to
this guy who's putting a new roof on my house. He owns a roofing company.
I wrote a brochure for him once. It may be a strange way to pick a roofing
company, but what do I know. Anyway, he mentions something about flying
to Colorado for the weekend. That's nice, I think, automatically assuming
that he'll be flying coach, taking advantage of some American Airlines
supersaver fare. Wrong! The guy owns his own airplane! This isn't an isolated
incident either. Another guy who is giving me a bid on remodeling my bathroom
happens to mention that he is getting a new boat. Maybe a nice bass boat
with a Mercury outboard? Wrong! Not even close. The guy's going to buy
a humongous, cigarette style ski boat with an inboard V-8 engine.
I can't help but think that something is wrong with this picture. These are rednecks I'm talking to. Virtually everyone in my own business is working longer hours, living with diminished expectations and talking openly about how stress is killing them. They call us knowledge workers these days. What a joke. Knowledge workers may think they have more glamorous jobs than my roofing contractor, but most haven't received a decent raise in a long time. Knowledge workers continually fret about downsizing. They keep their cars longer than they used to. They don't eat out as often. And they definitely don't own their own airplane.
Times have changed. While millions of displaced middle managers have become preoccupied with putting fax machines in their bedrooms and cell phones in their pockets for the ulcer inducing privilege of playing a bit part in today's new service economy, the real service professionals, the guys who who fix your dishwasher and decalcify your water heater, have started to flex their muscles. They know that most of the corporate knowledge workers who call them in a panic to fix their air conditioner don't have the knowledge to stir paint anymore. They know that in addition to almost single-handedly keeping Jeff Foxworthy and Ford F150 pickups popular, they have the upper hand with knowledge workers as well. These days it pays to be a redneck. And most of the time, if you need their services, you end up playing by their rules.
It doesn't matter if you've got someone coming to putting a new float in your toilet or add a new bedroom on your house, it will enviably take weeks to schedule an appointment. And if someone does finally agree to solve your trivial but vexing mechanical problem, you can guarantee they will come knocking at your door on the one day you specifically told them you'd be out of town. When you ask when you might expect the work to take place, you usually only get a cryptic reply. Sometime today is about as exact as it gets. Now, why can't I get away with this? My clients don't think twice about calling me at 8AM insisting that I finish some rush project the same day. Unfortunately, you can't make the same demands on the guy who is putting a tile floor in your kitchen. If you want to hear a litany of lame excuses, just ask your favorite plumber, carpenter, painter or auto mechanic to finish anything in a timely manner.
Let's face it. The rednecks have won. While a generation of upwardly mobile, yuppified MBA's were racing around trying to impress each other with their burgeoning knowledge of business process reengineering, paradigm shifts, web-enabled software and cultural diversity, an industrious group of rednecks were quietly drinking their Budweiser in the wings, plotting new and insidious ways to charge you five hundred dollars for rebuilding your transmission, snaking out your sewer line or trimming the trees in your backyard.
Since the really good repair people are booked months in advance, it's not hard to get to the point where you begin hiring functionally illiterate Metallica fans to take over the simple, but necessary tasks that used to be a part of any suburban weekend. It is this portion of the repair force bell curve that apparently hasn't gotten the word on the implications of the new service economy. Someone forgot to tell these guys that they must strive for "continuous improvement" and "add value" to everything they do. Someone certainly forgot to tell them that the customer is always right.
I'm convinced that all these second-tier carpenters, painters, auto mechanics, air conditioner repairmen and their Jeff Foxworthy loving cousins are living in a strange blue collar twilight zone. They still appear to feel perfectly comfortable showing up several hours late, blatantly bullshitting you about what needs to be done, whining about the rising cost of materials, while they are buying the cheapest junk they can find at Home Depot and then charging you double what the job is actually worth.
Ignorance is bliss however, and I'll have to admit that the motley crew of slackers I currently have working on my house seems a lot happier than I am. Case in point. I wake up one morning to the sound of lusty singing overhead. When I pull on a robe and go outside to investigate, I find eight young men, drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups, eating burritos and singing Mexican songs on my roof. They, of course, don't get any actual work done until almost lunchtime when the "boss" arrives to settle some trivial issue about whether to repair or replace a few sheets of 4x8 plywood. I'm convinced that they knew exactly what needed to be done, but refused to take the responsibility for making the decision themselves. In a similar fashion, I observe a pair of carpenters who arrive a few days later to replace some rotting trim under the eaves. They're four hours late and make some lame excuse about the difficulty of finding a suitable lumber for a house this old. When I examine the wood they have spend the entire morning searching for, I notice immediately that it doesn't even begin to match the existing trim. The carpenters leave again on yet another lumber search without hammering a single nail. Amazingly, neither of them seem the least bit upset about wasting an entire day.
Somehow a strange role reversal has taken place. A generation of blue collar workers have grown pony tails, bought big screen TV's and adopted the loose work ethics of sixties hippies, while their cubicle confined counterparts in ad agencies and dot.com startups are getting military-looking buzz-cuts, working eighty-hour weeks and behaving like stressed-out migrant workers. Ironically, a new business paradigm that emphasizes continuous improvement and customer service has been adopted by practically everyone in the work force "except" those people who actually come out to your house to make service calls. What this amounts to in practical terms is that thousands of people are sitting in office cubicles, talking and passing documents around to each other about the impact of the new service economy, but very little "service" is actually filtering down to the person who needs a new motor for their dishwasher, a new fuel pump for their car, or in my case, a new roof for my house.
People who make a comfortable living providing simple but necessary services for office workers must instinctively know that they have their pretentious college educated brethren by the balls. The capacity to do useful and practical chores has seemingly been bred out of an entire generation of middle management types, leaving them helpless to tune a carburetor, sweat a pipe fitting, or even replace the dead bolt on the front door. Sadly, it doesn't even matter if you still maintain some vestigial knowledge of what it's like to work with your hands. You probably aren't going to have the time anyway. If your job is linked in any way to the fortunes of other knowledge workers, they will conspire to keep you permanently tied to your telephone and fax machine, just like they are. As they say, misery loves company.
So, here I sit, shackled to a computer that retrieves my e-mail every twenty minutes, talking mindlessly with a client on the speakerphone about whether this particular word or that one communicates better in a video script about oil drilling equipment that doesn't really matter anyway. As I do this, I'm looking out the window at two totally inept carpenters straight out of Cheech and Chong attempting to cover up their mistakes. I'm wishing I had the patience to wait for the "A-List" carpenters as I watch these two bozos arguing, pointing toward a corner joint where two 1"x 12" fascia boards seem suspiciously out of alignment. As a result of their dubious craftsmanship, one of the boards is a full inch lower than the other one where they meet at a corner joint. Both carpenters are blaming each other and wondering if I'll notice. They're pissed off because the error is too glaring and obvious to cover up with caulk and putty like the rest of their mistakes.
I really think it's hopeless. The best and the brightest of two generations are still queuing up for their fifteen minutes of fame, offering to work for what amounts to minimum wage on the off-chance they might become the next Richard Avedon, Marsha Clark or Jay Chiat. Don't these people know they could make twice as much money as a plumber? Don't they know that the more "glamorous" the job title, the lower the salary? After several decades of encouraging people to get a good education and follow their dreams, we have created a brave new world where the ambitious aspire to work for nothing as long as they become famous, usually performing no useful function whatsoever. They fall over each other to become lawyers, consultants, advertising people or even worse. Most of the fools who are left behind to handle the vital task of keeping cockroaches from overrunning your house and repairing your garbage disposal couldn't build a decent doghouse without divine guidance. Like most professions, only a few of make the effort to become craftsmen. Most are savvy enough however, to unhesitatingly charge you top dollar for the privilege of watching them fail.