Wallowing in misery gets you nowhere; think positive.
Lately I’ve been conditioned to cringe even
before hearing the reply when I ask people around the industry, “How’s business?”
The construction slump has left most plumbing and mechanical contractors as
battered and bruised as Taliban wives.
Thus it is that the ears perk up when hearing something different than a
funeral dirge, like when I asked that question of a mechanical contractor
recently and got this response:
“Oh, it’s bad out there. We’re hanging on for now, but our bookings have
dropped off a cliff. But you know what, in the long run this will turn out for
the best. The crunch is helping to drive the guys who don’t know what they’re
doing out of the industry. We’ll survive, and so will our strongest
competitors. That’s OK, because it means when business picks up again maybe
sensible bids will have a chance to prevail. It’s been a long time since that
happened, even before the market went bust.”
Not his exact words, since I wasn’t recording or taking notes, but that’s the
gist of our conversation. His assessment touches on a harsh truth about
This downturn is more painful than any since the Great Depression, and only the
coldest of heart would cheer it on. Yet now that we’re enduring it, it’s worth
pointing out that recessions are capitalism’s way of dispensing with excess.
Banks made too many goofy loans to finance too many houses and buildings people
couldn’t afford, which reverberated into more construction than there were
competent contractors and trade workers to handle. Now a shakeout is underway
at all levels (although not as thorough as it would be without government
intervention, but that’s a story for a different day).
Recessions milder than this one used to occur in the United States pretty
regularly at four- to five-year intervals. Then, from 1982-2007, except for two
minor speed bumps in the early-’90s and briefly in 2001, we experienced the
greatest quarter-century of economic growth in our nation’s history. The
2008-2009 collapse can be viewed as payback for that uncommonly long run of
Yet as bad as things are, the desperation meter doesn’t compare with the Great
Depression. Back then a quarter of the labor market was out of work, without
welfare and unemployment checks to help out. Today, more than nine out of 10
people are still employed, still paying their mortgages and still in need of
our industry’s services. PHC service firms have been hit less severely than
construction contractors, and some have hardly noticed any slump at
Another silver lining comes from the unemployment data. Of course, it’s not
just data, but real people and families that are suffering, and there are
plenty of them. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear of someone I know
losing his or her job, and I’m sure many of you can say the same thing. We can
commiserate with their pain, yet at the same time find a silver lining in
From your perspective as contractors, the present job market represents your
best chance to overcome the industry’s most pressing and lingering problem -
finding good people.
Until the last year or so, just about anybody worth hiring was already
employed. Not anymore. Some very capable plumbers, fitters, office staff and
management personnel have been laid off. For the first time in decades, this
industry’s job market is tilting in favor of employers.
Some of the best prospects can be found among former competitors. They have
failed at running a contracting business, but many of them are superb mechanics
and project managers who stand chastened with new respect for business owners
with bills to pay and a payroll to meet.
Oh great! So what if good people are available, when you don’t have enough work
to take them on.
Think that through. Many service firms could justify adding a truck or two if
only they had worthwhile technicians to operate them. Construction firms have a
harder time adding payroll these days, but why not see if some of those former
competitors might be able to bring in enough new business to justify hiring
In any case, stay positive. Recognize that this whopper of a recession won’t last
forever and may well have bottomed out. While you’re struggling to stay in
business, try to devote a little time each day to think ahead about how you’re
going to capitalize when the market bounces back.
June 1, 2009