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You get what you pay for: The decline of craftsmanship

  • Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I am really curious and concerned about the future of quality craftsmanship. Does our very best count for anything anymore in our selected trades? We have a residential painting company and over 30 years experience in our vocation; we are extremely confident that we know what we are doing, and increasingly less confident that anyone cares that we know what we are doing. More and more we are asked to accept less pay to perform more work – be all that and a bag of chips, so to say.

Are we all slaves to the paycheck? Yes and no. It depends on whether your livelihood relies on your trade or craft.

Example, I began painting floor cloths about 10 years ago. Egged on by family and friends, I started creating them for purchase. Even though I absolutely loved doing this craft, it was never seriously considered as replacement income for working. Why? Not enough people wanted to pay for individuality when they could get a knockoff for a fraction of the cost. My smaller pieces ran $125 on hand-cut canvas, quality paint and mitered edges with original hand-painted art and took seven days from start to finish to create. But, with the tap of a keyboard key, the same size knockoffs are purchased for $45, mass produced, stenciled and can be overnighted.

Instant gratification and appearances. You see it's not good enough to know that you own something original; it's better that others think you own something original. I don't produce floor cloths anymore, unless someone shows genuine interest in owning a one-of-a-kind piece of originality.

However, I have a choice in deciding whether or not I will create these again. It isn't the trade that provides my family's sustainability. Unfortunately, the trend of get it now, get it fast and get it cheap, has spilled over into our residential painting business. With more and more consistency, we are hearing these lines: “We like your presentation. Your references are impeccable. Your website is awesome, but Mr. Jack Flash gave us a quote $1,000 cheaper than yours, can you match it?” or “If you throw in the door and porch, we have a deal.”

Newsflash, we don't drive out to homes to give free quotes after working on a job for nine hours that day because it's fun, and we don't bid the jobs not to get them or to barter. We carefully consider time, labor, material and difficulty. And, more often than not these days (because of the the low bidders), we err on the side of breaking even just to get the paycheck. But even then, we get the same replies.

We drove through a new neighborhood recently, homes starting in upper-$500K's. Going up like card houses. Street after street of houses being spray painted inside and out. In three years (if that), the blazing sun of the South will turn the paint mist to chalk and it will fail. That would be good for us, right? No. Because another sprayer will come in and bid the job for $2,000 less than our brush-and-roll bid, and once again another fine mist of paint will cover the home. Oh yes, it will look fantastic when he is done, check in hand and gone. But, the paint will fail and chalk just as the previous job did and by now, the customer expects this as normal. If they are lucky, the job will last for two to three years, compared to seven-10 years for our brush-and-roll job. No one has time to do things right, not even get a quote.

This really happened:

*Brrrrrrrrrrr-nnnng*

Me: “Hello, XXXXXX Painting.”

Caller: “Yes, could you give me a quick quote over the phone on how much it will cost to paint my entire house.”

Me: “I'm sorry, that would be impossible, but we will be glad to come over and look at it. It is not intrusive and will take less than 15 minutes usually.”

Caller: “No, I just want a rough estimate.”

Me: “I don't know what your house looks like.”

Caller: “I will describe it.”

Me: “I am really sorry, but there are too many variables to guess at it.”

Caller: “Ok, bye.”

So, bottom line? If it's a quickie, Huckleberry Finn whitewash job they want, they can still call us. I will be glad to give them the name of a company that will do the job. We work behind them all the time to fix their messes. In this scenario, all ends well; the customer will get what they paid for and my hubby can come home to dinner rather than have his time wasted.

The decline of craftsmanship can be discouraging. Especially when the parents of us baby boomers taught us that craftsmanship and trades are important assets to the community and self. Teach a man to fish and he'll never go hungry, unless of course someone has netted off the entire channel.

In the mean time, we are lifted by the confidence of the ones that squeeze through the net and appreciate a job well done for a fair price. We can't lower our standards and neither should customers. This was really a venting article and not an advertorial.

And contrary to popular belief piddlin' is not always leisure time. Piddlin' can be anything from bush-hogging a field to snapping a bushel basket of green beans on the front porch. Visit Renae Brabham's website at www.renaebrabham.com.

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