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The Obstacle of Progress (Part 6)

Let’s talk about that contractor I’ve alluded to throughout this series. This individual, who shall anonymous, came up the hard way. He tells tales of working for free on weekends to learn another facet of the trade and washing all of the journeyman’s tools in the rain as an apprentice. This was another day and time, one nearly forgotten except in the minds of those who entered the drywall trade more than a generation ago.

As a sophomore in high school he took a summer job in 1968 “spotting” nails for $1.50 an hour. Married by age 18, he soon had children to support, and the union apprenticeship seemed like his best option. So he continued to learn the trade and soon advanced to foreman. Never quite satisfied, he went into business for himself in 1976.

During our interview he commented, “For as long as I can remember, business-wise it seems that I have been insisting on one thing or another while employees and even management wholeheartedly discounted the possibility of it ever becoming a reality. Many, many times I have lacked support simply because others felt certain that whatever particular endeavor I had embarked upon was a waste of time. Trying to bring about the change necessary to accomplish a particular goal or task seemed (at least to many of them) pure folly. I can still hear the voices of countless naysayers.

“Nevertheless, many of those endeavors ultimately became routine business practices that are currently fully embraced and appreciated. Sometimes they have been right, I suppose, simply because some of it never happened. But then again, most of it did. In all of it I’m sure I appeared unreasonable as others attempted to persuade me that it (whatever it was) just couldn’t be done.”

We both acknowledged how much the construction world has radically changed in the past 40-plus years. Expectations for exceptional quality and on-time delivery were the first to move. We both recalled a day and time when “we should be finished sometime next week and pretty good work” was good enough. But over time that transitioned to a date of certain completion determined well in advance, and an expectation of impeccable quality. Standards have constantly become more demanding. Faster, better and cheaper seems to have become the mantra. Such change required change at several levels; many stood steadfast in disbelief while others adapted.

He couldn’t help but laugh as he described how hangers used to turn payroll in on a piece of drywall, or tapers/finishers did so on a piece of Perf-a-Tape. That led to the development of timecards, which had to continuously evolve in order to keep pace with the labor laws. The workforce and businesses were stunned by these necessary changes. Lengthy and dreadful hiring packets were developed to accommodate the ever-increasing hiring requirements. Some businesses clung to the old and easy until they were audited and fined or completely shut down.

It became nearly impossible to keep everyone supplied with all the necessary paperwork. The contractor recalls setting up a self-service set of bulletin boards. Foremen and employees could no longer be spoon-fed with information. No one had time to hand it all out, it was enough just to produce it and provide access; employees were expected to remove, copy and replace the master copies posted on the bulletin boards. Some were indignant when they were confronted with this change, but change was a matter of survival. Business was booming with well over 400 employees who were turning 50 to 70 houses a week at times.

Soon thereafter, safety and jobsite cleanliness became equally important to customers. These changes evolved over the years, and again, many subcontractors and employees scoffed at such demands. Others (like my anonymous contractor) realized that such changes were here to stay and adjusted. That adjustment was costly and painful. Workers migrated to where they could get by with the fewest restrictions, and those employers who adapted to the changing environment were in a difficult position, at least in the short term. The obstacle of progress stood squarely in the way interfering with “business as usual” as it always does.

Then along came technology, pagers, cell phones, computers, email, smartphones and tablets. Another radical change, especially for the construction world that was (is) still fairly unsophisticated. Many tradesmen and old school management types were (are) anything but computer literate. In fact, one of his best managers saw the trend coming and knew the type of business owner he worked for. He knew he would be inclined to make that transition as well. He told him plainly with a modicum of respect: “Don’t get me no damn computer!” And there it was again, the obstacle of progress.

To be continued …

Doug Bellamy is president of Innovative Drywall Systems Inc. dba Alta Drywall, Escondido, Calif. Visit him on LinkedIn or contact him at [email protected].

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