Are we living in limbo?

In the March issue of this magazine, there were three letters to the editor in response to my January column about “Back Row Boy” technicians. All three letters observed that the Back Row Boy syndrome applies to contracting business owners as well. What an idea! And this is a good thing!

Here's a quick summary of the letters:

No. 1. Adams Hudson, a marketing consultant, says, “I finally figured out that the 78 percent of owners in this industry who started off as technicians were trained as 'fixers' themselves. Thus, to be a 'fixer,' you have to find something broken.” He sees a connection between this and his observation that contracting business owners seem skeptical, even abrasive, about new business solutions. (My company ain't broke, so why would I want to fix it?!)

No. 2. Harry Parker, a back row maintenance guy turned instructor, writes, “Some darn good mechanics make over $60,000 per year. I wish I had kept a record of the number of people with master's degrees ... who wished they had followed my career track and not theirs.”

No. 3. Dave Morrison, from the supply side of the industry, says, “And while manufacturers and distributors bemoan the fact that contractors are not businessmen, it is important to realize they have skills that businessmen generally do not have.”

These letters make me think of a book I recently read, “Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams,” by Alfred Lubrano. The author points out that many of us were raised blue collar and “moved up” to white collar roles and professions. His premise is that although we frequently can “pass” as white collar, the blue collar roots keep showing through. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it does put us in a state of limbo, because we don't completely fit in either the blue collar or the white collar worlds.

Nearly everyone would agree that “fixers” are a blue collar profession. And business ownership is ideally a white collar position. If 78 percent of our industry owners were first “fixers,” we have some significant limbo going on in our business!

True Blue

Let me start with myself as a limbo person. My dad was an electrician. I grew up with the electricians' union (IBEW) having their monthly meetings in our basement. One of my first teen jobs was “manning” phones the summer they went on strike. My parents encouraged me to go to college and do better in life than they had. I got lots of degrees. I got a job doing white collar work at a major corporation. But despite the education, I still think in terms of “figure out what's wrong and fix it.” If someone asks me what the problem is, I tell them - as directly as possible.

I learned from the “Limbo” book that what I always thought was an asset (figure out the solution and state it as clearly as possible) is a dead give-away as to my blue collar roots. The book suggests that a person raised white collar might be more likely to hedge on the fact that there even is a problem, let alone spit out a solution.

Here are some blue collar vs. white collar characteristics:

Blue Collar

  • Direct approach - calls it what it is.
  • Knows how to do the work.
  • Has a do-it-yourself approach.
  • Believes “you have to earn it.”
  • Believes rewards come from hard work.
  • Fears losing it all.
  • Figures out how to fix things (again, and again).
White Collar
  • Indirect approach - makes things agreeable.
  • Knows how to delegate the work rather than do it.
  • Finds people who can do it for him.
  • Believes he's entitled to his place in life.
  • Believes rewards come from knowing the right people.
  • Knows there's more where this came from.
  • Replaces with new things rather than fixing the old.
Where do you see yourself? Where do you see your company?

Lots of people in this business are living in limbo. Your folks wanted you to do better then they did. At the same time, the family you came from doesn't want to see any arrogance about that.

“You go make us proud. And dontcha dare come home too big fer yer britches!” That's limbo. When you win, you can't win.

Let's say your dad was a plumber. You grew up turning wrenches with him. Maybe he started a small business and left it to you. Before that, though, he said, “You don't want to work like I had to. You go to college and get yourself a degree. Get a good job.” Maybe getting that “good” job wasn't so great for you as it looked to dad. Maybe dad's little business looked better as your limitations in the real world sunk in. Or maybe dad's business needed to be rescued as he got older, and you were the one to do it.

Perhaps you worked for someone else and thought if this clown can be in business, I sure as heck can do it better.

Maybe you're a technician today, thinking, “Someday I'm going to be the boss and do it my way.”

All of these scenarios add up to the same limbo, because like it or not, what we have is a blue collar fixer trying to fit into a white collar business owner world - trying to live in both worlds in exactly the same time. Here's how it goes:

Owner: “I'll be in my office working on that business plan. Don't interrupt me unless there's an emergency.”

Office help: “Sir, the field called with an emergency.”

Owner: “Can't you see I'm busy with these business plans?!”

Office help: “Sir, there's no one else to deal with this. The guys don't know what to do.”

Owner: “OK, OK. When the bank calls, have 'em try me on my cell.”

Do you know anyone who could successfully schmooze a banker while standing in a puddle of dirty water - besides you, that is? (Oops, I'm wrong. This would never happen this way. If you're true blue collar, you wouldn't think you needed a banker anyway. Your values would say you have to do it all yourself.)

How Low Can You Go?

Unlike white collar roots, blue collar roots have the special dilemma of actually being able to do the field work. The skill seems like an asset until you consider:
  • Who's minding the white collar part of the business while you're out in the field?

  • How do your employees feel when you show up in your Superman suit? Certainly they're relieved. At the same time, it may be tough on their self-confidence when you can do their job better than they. (You wouldn't ever point that out to them, would you?)

  • Can you really do justice to two full-time jobs - blue collar Mr. Fixit by day, and white collar Mr. Business Owner by night?
It's exactly this situation of straddling two completely different worlds that blows our cover when we are passing so well as white collar. We can be smooth. We can schmooze. We can figure out the politics. We can be cool - until the stress of it all builds up too high and, boom, we blow. We get really direct really fast with someone who really deserves it. Oops, says “Limbo” author, that's those blue colors showing through - solving that immediate problem, with direct action, right now.

But limbo isn't a completely bad thing. As the writer of the third letter to the editor said, contractors have skills that businessmen generally do not have. The author of the book sees it the same way. He says that knowingly or not, society highly values folks with blue collar roots and white collar dreams. Limbo-ers may not be completely comfortable in either world, but they - make that we - are honest (sometimes to a fault when telling it like it is), eager to work hard, and determined to succeed.

And while I'm at it, writing a column on this particular topic is rather limbo-ish, too, isn't it?

Fey At ISH North America

Carol Fey is a scheduled speaker at this year's ISH North America trade show held Oct. 14-16 in Boston. She will present “The Fun & Effective Way To Teach Controls Wiring To Your Employees” Thursday, Oct. 14 at 3 p.m. and repeat the session Friday, Oct. 15 at 9:45 a.m. To register for the show, visit www.ish-na.com.