One of the best parts of my job comes when I get to tour a building materials factory. Most recently, it was a Georgia-Pacific laminated veneer lumber plant in Alabama that set my mouth agape. Into one end of the loud, mechanized line went truckloads of Southern pine logs; out the other end came seemingly endless pallets of neatly trimmed LVL, ready for installation in projects far away.
That visit still was on my mind in Baltimore a few weeks later, at the Remodeling | Deck | JLC Show, where Versatex brought together executives from top remodeling companies to discuss, among other things, the labor shortage. Their conclusion: Workers can be found if you look hard enough and pay high enough, but discovering a great employee—particularly one who’s younger than 40—is increasingly difficult.
Those experiences come together in my mind because they represent two trends that are converging to push ever faster a change in what constitutes remodeling work. Call this change machine-tooled craftsmanship. Not so long ago, homes were produced by individuals whose craftsmanship compensated for subpar or raw materials. Skilled, creative builders like the Shakers turned local materials into glorious buildings, while next door a yeoman farmer might have to endure a New England winter in a log cabin. That human edge, plus a tendency to overbuild, kept our houses—or at least the Shakers’ homes—upright and looking good. It also led to inconsistency of work and waste of good product.
Today, there’s no compelling reason to keep a shop full of knives to produce a molding pattern, and a factory can cut a better-fitting joint than most individuals produce.
What’s the link with today’s labor crunch? It’s that construction increasingly is evolving away from craftsmanship and toward manufacturing. And if you look at cars, you’ll see where you’re heading next. In the early 1900s, only an expert had the mechanical and driving skills to operate a car. By the 1920s, we moved from a world in which mechanics invented parts to one in which mechanics took materials made by specialty companies and installed them as-is or machined them to the right specifications. That era lasted up until about the 1980s for auto mechanics, but it’s still the environment for home repair crews today.
Look at what’s happened since the 1980s for car mechanics, notes marketing consultant Joaquin Erazo. So much technology goes into autos today that car specialists aren’t so much experts in how every part in a car works but rather how those parts come together.
What’s happened with autos has implications for who you hire and how they work. Freestyling isn’t as necessary as it once was. Understanding building science matters more, as does awareness of how much time and effort it should take to accomplish a task, and how new materials and tools can change those metrics. “We probably have more assembly today rather than craftsmanship,” one participant at the Versatex meeting said. To me, that’s OK. What you’re still crafting is a way for your clients to live in a safe, healthy, beautiful home. And that skill will forever be needed.