Reader Sanity Check: Erosion of the Skilled Trades?

Reader Sanity Check: Erosion of the Skilled Trades? 1

Generalizing from one anecdote is always fraught, but this one is a doozy. The question is whether this sighing is simply a facet of wildly overpriced housing in San Francisco intersecting with the labor market, or whether is it a harbinger of what you will be seeing in the US, or at least big and biggish cities, in not too long. Remember that marketers have long claimed that trends start in California and then spread to the rest of the US.

A fellow class traitor called recently. He was the first in his family to graduate from college (Harvard) and he’s since done well for himself, managing among other things to buy a Victorian house in San Francisco when they were merely sort of costly. I lamented to him what a drag it was being responsible for a house, recounting my latest tale of woe, which is discovering that the HVAC company with which my mother had had a premium maintenance contract had massively punted, to the degree that we have damage in other systems in the house (yours truly in pondering hard how to pin the liability tail on this particular donkey).

This is a rough reconstruction of his response:

I have a lot of sympathy for people who have things like that happen to them. The reason I have spent so much time developing home handyman/maintenance skills and do as much as I can myself is that it’s gotten almost impossibly hard to find someone who will do the work properly. In a lot of cases, cutting corners won’t show up for a long time.

Here it’s become hard to hire workmen who don’t have a meth habit.1 I just hired someone to paint a room.2 She begged me to pay her half before the job was done. She then disappeared for four hours for a drug buy and to get high.

When I turn 70, I could hire myself out as a skilled handyman for $500 an hour. People here would pay that to get someone they knew would perform.

Mind you, we aren’t talking about laying granite counters or marbleizing walls or setting fancy pool tiles. This is old fashioned bread and butter construction and infrastructure maintenance work allegedly eroding from the bottom.

The reason to think this observation from the West Coast might indeed be occurring on a broader is the every-rising costs of technical education. There is evidenc of a shortage among skilled workers. From Industrial Skilled Trades in February:

The skilled trades division of PeopleReady (PeopleReady Skilled Trades) found that the amount of skilled trade jobs is far outpacing the supply of qualified workers to fill them. There were 388,345 jobs posted for skilled trades-related workers between May and June of last year, a 50% increase from pre-pandemic levels. The more sobering data here is that most positions remained unfilled for an average of 24 days.

They based their numbers on the growth in demand over a month and the length of time that jobs typically remain unfilled:

Concrete masons top the list with 904% growth in demand compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
Electricians have risen 130%.
Plumbers are up 129%.
And carpenters are up 121%.

PeopleReady also found that apprentice-level or helper-level type of work is the most impacted.

And remember, it takes a very long period of apprentice work in many states to become licensed. In Alabama, all HVAC technicians must be licensed (no working under the license of a genera contractor or company owner). Here the requirements are:

Get approval from the Alabama licensing board to sit for the exam.
Be registered as an HVAC apprentice.
Complete a minimum of 3,000 hours of HVAC coursework.
Graduate from an approved Alabama HVAC program.
Be at least 18 years old with a high school diploma or GED.

Let’s play this out a bit. What if in five years some (many?) cities are short of skilled tradesmen? What happens if you have to wait for a plumber or an electrician to come out? Remember broken or leaky pipes can do serious damage quickly, and some electrical faults are dangerous.

There’s also the question of a fall in quality of work. In my case, it may simply be a manifestation of the general tendency to see women, particularly older women, as marks. The other “systems problems” we are having may also be in part due shoddy work on a five figure upgrade I paid for less than a year ago. Some of my construction-knowledgable contacts are finding it not credible that the amount of damage attributed to the HVAC faults could have happened that quickly. So I am also having to see if too much blame is being dumped on the HVAC contractor (who to be clear totally ignored basic problem over the entire course of their maintenance contract).

In the long run, these shortages will become Revenge of the Deplorables. As my San Francisco contact suggests, well trained tradesmen who develop a reputation for doing good work will likely in not all that long to be able to command top dollar. But if even that shift still fails to attract more young people to go into these professions, we’ll also wind up with more rotting infrastructure since some won’t be able to afford the cost of timely maintenance.


1 My interlocutor is likely behind the times on the controlled substance of choice.

2 Earlier in the conversation, he’d explained how he and his wife had been traveling a ton for work, so I assumed this was the reason for doing something so out of character for him as have someone else do plaster work and paint.

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