Why Is It So Hard To Hire A Contractor?

A Wall Street Journal writer got in touch with me last summer and asked if she could interview me. She was working on an article about why it was so hard to hire a contractor. It was to be in the Small Business section of the Journal. She was mainly concerned with those contractors who don’t return calls, or those who show up, give an estimate, and then just disappear. She said many of the Journal’s readers had asked about this.

We set a time to talk, and in anticipation of that, I posted her question (Why is it so hard to hire you?) on The Wall at HeatingHelp.com because the pros who post there are not shy. It was like opening a floodgate. I gave the writer a heads-up and she followed the thread during the three days that passed between her email to me and our phone conversation. She explained that she had a limit of 600 words on her piece, but the Wallies were telling her so much that her editor decided she needed more space. The final article, which appeared on July 18, was 1,200 words long, which is about the same size as this column.

This is a bit of what she learned from the pros:

They have enough work. “I'm not sure there is a singular reason for this one,” one of the Wallies posted. “One of my better customers, before he started his plumbing company, heard from people around town that they just wish a plumber would answer the phone! He and his wife opened up shop with the promise that they would ALWAYS pick up the phone. It was an instant success, so much so that he was quickly overwhelmed with work. Two years later he was no longer answering phone calls from new customers. He didn't even have enough time to tell them he didn't have enough time.”

There were others that told similar stories. My brother lives in a very fancy neighborhood on Long Island. He had used a certain plumber for the past five years and he needed to have a spigot moved after he had an egress window installed in his basement. The plumber told him that he would have his sister write up a proposal. Three weeks went by with no proposal or return call. Then my brother ran into the plumber while getting coffee at the 7-Eleven. He asked when the plumber could do the work. “Yeah, I’m not sure. My sister is working on the proposal,” he said. “She’ll get back to you.”

We’re talking a single hose spigot here.

They’re short-handed. When I was doing seminars, I’d say the average age of the pros who attended was mid-50s. And I stopped doing seminars in 2016. It’s gotten worse since then. So few people are coming into the industry. One of the Wallies commented that this is a dying profession, and it literally is. The old-timers who had knowledge of older heating systems are retiring and becoming Dead Men. They’re doing this without leaving their knowledge behind.

But people are always going to need heat in the winter and cool in the summer, so I think what we’re going to see more of are simplified systems that will be throwaways. Think heat pumps.

Plumbing will continue to be a problem. Think spigots.

First impressions. Most of the Wallies agreed that, nowadays, contractors won’t return that first call just because they didn’t like the way the person left that voicemail. They were too demanding, or curt. They expected too much, or they reminded them of a brother- or sister-in-law that they can’t stand. When the demand outpaces the supply they can do that, and they sure do.

Many people don’t show respect. A Wallie said, “It's so hard to hire a plumber or Hvac contractor because we are blue-collar workers and in this day and age most people look down on us - that is, until they need something fixed. But then when we do fix it, they forget about us until they need us again. More people work white collar jobs in comparison. They really have no clue about anything, except how to use a smartphone, Go on YouTube, or Google to check prices and get free estimates. They see no value in us. They just want to demand things and pay as little as possible for the work we do.”

Many others agreed that they won’t return calls to people who show them no respect.

The really good contractors qualify their customers. It used to be the other way around for customers. She would call three or more contractors for an estimate and then decide which one to hire, based on their price and qualifications. The really good guys usually didn’t get hired by those people because they knew they were good and were never going to be the low-bidder. They understood their cost of doing business and were not going to take work just to stay busy. They were busy enough. These contractors never gave free estimates. They charge appropriately for their time because to do an estimate you had to measure and size, which makes it an exact, not an estimate. They serve only those who recognized their talents and were willing to pay to have it done right the first time, and at the price they ask. They know that those customers that they qualified will recommend to their like-minded friends and it will all be word-of-mouth after that.

If they didn’t install the boiler, they’re not going to service the system. Consider a steam modern replacement steam boiler. The near-boiler piping is going to make or break that boiler because the velocity of the steam leaving the boiler is so high that the piping has to do the job of removing the liquid water that’s otherwise going to carry-over into the system. A knowledgeable pro knows that it’s critical to follow (or even improve upon) the boiler manufacturer’s installation instructions. If they get called on a job where a knucklehead installed that near-boiler piping they will give the customer the bad news: It must be redone. There are no short-cuts. If the customer balks, the pro walks. This happens so often that many of the contractors who shared their thoughts said they wouldn’t do the job. But at least they took the call, and paid a visit.

They’d rather do new construction. Many contractors prefer to take on lower-paying new construction rather than run around fixing things others have installed. It may be that these contractors are not very good at troubleshooting, particularly older systems (think steam). Troubleshooting and installing are two different worlds. And since there’s a shortage of young people coming into the business, and more work than most can handle, they stick with the easier work, even if it means they’ll make less money.

When I went to college as a night student with a wife and four kids, I studied sociology, not engineering, even though I had been in this business for years. I had a feeling I would be talking to the Wall Street Journal some day.


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