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On-the-job lessons give us all a chance to learn

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I’ve recently spent the better part of two weeks on a job site, namely my rental property, where I was joined by a parade of tradesmen.

Plumbers, cleaners, an electrician and a carpet installer did their thing while I painted, taking my first opportunity to restore my former bachelor pad to its former glory. Here’s a tip for any landlords out there: don’t let your tenants burn cheap candles — the soot damage is unreal.

Repairs were extensive. The plumbers replaced the well pump, the electrician updated the 100-amp service and two wall-to-wall carpets were installed. My checkbook needs a breather. I was present for most of the work, mostly because I sort of enjoy painting, but also to make sure things were done right. As somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades, I like to learn from the masters, which means I ask a lot questions as the work progresses. I have a lot of respect for tradesmen and would obviously like to help, if only they’d ask.

Inevitably, I let them know I’m the editor of a trade publication. Usually it’s because I’m asked what I do for a living, but sometimes it’s just to get on their good side. I really want the job done right, so if they’re impressed by what I do, my chances have improved. That’s the theory anyway.

The carpet installer couldn’t have been any less impressed. He was all business, working alone and with great efficiency. He was my least favorite tradesman because he wanted no part of my interaction. But he did a professional job and I got my money’s worth.

The plumber was another story. The owner was a bit too impressed with my occupation and provided a lengthy presentation of his marketing efforts. He also threw everything but the kitchen sink at the project, assigning a crew of three to the job. The labor costs were staggering. Each plumber cost me at least $100 an hour. I was never asked if three plumbers could be used or given any justification. Two, in my opinion, are usually enough. It was obvious that I was funding the owner’s overhead, so lesson learned.

The electrician was the polar opposite. He’s a one-man shop who I’ve hired several times in the past and is willing to work in a crawl space. We must be friends by now, and in the day-and-half spent on the job site a range of business-related topics were discussed.

The shoe was on the other foot as he asked my advice about an appropriate hourly rate. His accountant said he wasn’t charging enough. He’s researched his competitors and knows he’s in the middle range. The difference is he doesn’t have a crew. So, in what has to be the dumbest thing a customer ever said to a tradesman, I suggested he charge more. This will surely come back to haunt me, but the guy is always busy, does great work and can barely get ahead from year to year. He should charge more, right?

I’m now back in the office, probably doing what I do best. But I miss being on the job site, working with my hands and talking shop. I’m a tradesman wannabe, if only they’d ask.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.

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