Recently, my father (majority owner-with my mother-of our family run drywall company) and I spent an afternoon skim coating a house, a feat considerable only because of its regularity. Yet, fitted between the usual din of pan slaps and squeaking stilts, my father posed a question, which unsettled our well-worn drywall routine.

After listening to me detail another milestone achieved by my 3-year-old son (he caught his first fish with his Buzz Lightyear fishing rod), my father wondered if, in the future, I would encourage my son to seek a different vocation than drywall. I responded “Yes!” After a few guffaws and knee slaps, we went back to work, my father and I, side by side, like so many other times through the years.

Later, amid the comforts of home, my earlier condemnation of the drywall trade softened as I acknowledged its importance to not only my nuclear family but to my extended family, as well. Great uncles, uncles, and cousins are, or have been, drywall business owners. Our familial reliance on drywall, both as an occupation and business, has proven financially rewarding. However, this success is not without prohibitive costs and realizations. These polar acknowledgements proved vexing as I pondered my father’s question: should I encourage my son to pursue a vocation other than drywall? Hmmm … of first concern is compensation.

Money-It's a Hit

So goes a line from Pink Floyd’s song “Money,” an anthem that includes ringing melodious money machines and indicting lyrics, a commercial condemnation delivered with wit, sarcasm, and unmatched musical deft. While rock stars and other artists may hone their beloved craft to further ideals and promote “enlightened” thought, drywallers likely opt for monetary compensation over adoration of their work. (I can attest to this: for the last 16 years, I’ve labored in drywall with nary a days work done for the love of it). Yet, noting the average reported wage of drywall mechanics by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2008, the value of a drywall tradesperson is pale.

Consider, at an annual median wage of $39,400, a drywall mechanic/finisher, on average, earns less than shuttle car operators, administrative assistants, farmers and embalmers, among others. Of course, ambitious and skilled drywallers can far exceed the average wage, as our company compensates diligent workers $50,000 or more a year. Yet these cases are anomalies. The underwhelming average wage (and the depressing fact that many drywallers are making the same piece rate today that they were making ten years ago) affirms the questionable economic worth of a drywall professional. Especially when working conditions are weighed.

First some relevant weights to consider:
  • 1/2” 4x12 sheet of drywall = 81.6 pounds

  • 5/8” 4x12 sheet of drywall = 110 pounds

  • Bucket of Joint Compound = 67 pounds

  • Pair of Stilts = 16 pounds

  • 12” pan filled with mud = 7.5 pounds

  • (A day-off work spent fly-fishing = light as a feather)
Drywall, for the blissfully unaware, is labor intensive. It’s an occupation certain to jolt joints and bother bones, often irreparably. While the numerous technical advancements in tools propel productivity and lessen strain, it remains a difficult endeavor.

Inescapably, buckets of drywall compound are heavy, sheets of drywall are heavier, and walking on stilts, climbing scaffolding, trowel work, sanding, and hanging are just plain hard.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, during the period of 1992 to 2000, six out of those ten years revealed higher nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses for drywall installers (mechanics) than the average of all construction trades. However, owing to improved safety appreciation, procedures, and working conditions, the nonfatal injury rate for drywall mechanics continues to ebb, falling from 720 cases per 10,000 full-time workers in 1992 to 259 cases in 2000.

Regardless of the improvements, drywall is an arduous toil, a profession that takes a daily toll on a participant’s body, for seemingly low compensation. This is a double-dose, indeed. Now, for the trifecta.

Incidentals and Anecdotals

A few days later, as I struggled to identify marked positives of the drywall profession, I asked my father, a life-long drywall business owner, for sage assistance. As he cleaned drywall mud off his arthritic hands, he said, unconvincingly, “Well, it’s better than digging ditches.” This to which my older brother, a 21-year drywall veteran replied, “Well, it depends on the depth of the ditches and where you’re digging them.”

So, is drywall that bad? A career choice best avoided? Later that day, as I sat on my back deck, admiring the clear running, smallmouth fishery below, it seemed palatable, a consequential trade that allows a comfortable living for my family. Yet, the inescapable negatives avalanche these moments of placid acceptance.

Our days off are few, often resulting in a full month or two of unrelenting work and missed family engagements.

Homebuilders, in addition to pushing tight schedules, also exact cash flow and cost savings by extending pay periods and extracting well earned pay increases. Additionally, and unfortunately, fruitful working relationships are oftentimes rendered inconsequential by low-ball bids offered by desperate, if not financially astute, competitors.

Also, the indefatigable costs of health care, insurance, materials, and taxes continue to exert financial pressure. These hardships require drywall (among others) business owners to remain vigilant, nimble, and frugal to manage these costs.

As well, more municipalities and townships are slowing approval for residential developments as infrastructure constraints and neighbor complaints localize and occasionally exacerbate the national cyclicality of home building.

After thorough and thoughtful consideration, my father’s question can be answered. I will explain to my son the pros and cons of joining our family business. I will also hope he’ll realize the salience of higher education and its well-reported and ample rewards. I, on the other hand, remain proud to work with my family daily, building our business and plying our craft in an honest, diligent and well-received manner.