For decades, the state of California Contractors License Board insisted new applicants take classes on business. They noted that most new contractors failed not from lack of trade knowledge, but rather lack of business acumen. Today, we see more businessmen becoming contractors, even specialty contractors. As accomplished businessmen, they secure lines of credit, establish proven management structures, merge companies and look to bundle the trades to secure more work. The downside is most people had little to no craft knowledge. Knowing a trade is not reading a book. Most businessmen would say, “I can hire a trade expert.” That belief is flawed. How do you know the guy you just hired is an expert? This also explains why so many of these multi-trade firms struggle when expanding to add a craft to their company portfolio.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

I once sat with an accomplished businessman who inherited a large multi-faceted wall and ceiling contracting firm. When he offered to review a technical paper on lath and plaster, I expected to get suggestions on writing style or overall objectives. I was surprised when he focused on technical issues for plastering. He did not lack confidence in his observations. I wondered how he became so confident on the trade. My answer came the following week at a wet wall demonstration for new cement plaster basecoat. His plastering supervisor volunteered to apply cement plaster with a hawk and trowel. I noted that he took the cement plaster from the back of the hawk. I am certain the businessman thought this guy was an expert in plastering. However, his actions proved he was not.

Why is it relevant how one would take cement plaster off the hawk? This is not an efficient move to enhance production in plaster applications. How can one improve production when he or his supervisors do not know themselves? Apprenticeship programs educate, as well as teach basics. The contractor and mentors are the ones who train the young to hone and become proficient at their selected craft. Without this expertise, we simply become generalists. More concerning is the fact that this supervisor offered to show his skills—or lack thereof—in front of a large group of real experts. He must have believed himself to be an expert. I was not the only one who noticed this—but then again, only a skilled plasterer would notice it.

Increased production rates are the key to making money in subcontracting. You need skilled workers at craft and production. You need management that knows how to recognize talent and mentors to hone these workers skills.

The Best Choice

It was no surprise to learn recently that this mega firm is in financial trouble. They will likely survive through leveraging assets and loans from powerful labor groups who think they are too big to allow failure. This should be a concern to all of us in the industry who understand and know that a real specialist does specialty work best. Only then, can we train, mentor and improve productivity, which in turn makes companies profitable and raises the middleclass wage.

Designers should strongly consider these words if they like a product or system that requires skills to install them. Proficient rate of production keeps these systems alive. Consider stucco: production in the residential markets of the southwest remains high, this keeps costs down, the cladding affordable and the market share up. The same cannot be said for the commercial market. The problem is more than just stating the over-paid workers’ case.

The true specialty subcontractor can out-produce the multi-trade specialty contractor who bundles his work. Bid price is not a good indicator of real cost. Some big firms give away trade work to get the bundled package. Is that good business and why should designers care? To keep skilled trades and the products installed as an option, they need to support and encourage the true specialty contractor. Ironically, we hear that designers do not want or appreciate this type of work. Nothing is further from the truth. Designers love craftwork; most are unaware of the systemic trend to suppress it. The businessman who owns a specialty trade firm will likely disagree and claim he has the best supervisors in each craft. When I hear this, I think of the plasterer taking mud from the back of the hawk and remember the old saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”