Nancy and I are doing some sprucing up of our new house. About a year ago, we were living in our church gymnasium after our house on the Kentucky River flooded into the second floor. We decided to move into town and found a nice abode near College Park, which had formerly been a rental property.
Our next-door neighbors anxiously awaited our homeownership as they were ready to install a new fence between our properties. It apparently had been a while since someone had given them permission to “intrude” on this property. Needless to say, we were all thrilled this could proceed. Our neighbors, who do all kinds of building and repair work, also agreed to build us hog-wire fencing and gates, a back deck, and a tool shed. Our next projects were a metal roof, insulation, new electrical and plumbing work, a half-bath in the attic, and a privacy wall upstairs to create another bedroom for my son when he’s home on break.
Whew! A lot of work. Work that’s very appreciated.
Today, I had a visit from a subcontractor from a local big-box home improvement store to do measuring for a new kitchen cabinet and countertops. Matthew is a great guy – he lives in Lexington and owns his own cabinet business in Frankfort. In our conversations, he shared that it’s hard for him to find solid workers like so many other businesses and industries lately. He said that even harder is to find young folks willing to learn trades, whether it be craftsmen, electricians, plumbers, etc. Between a few months to a few years of trade school education and years of apprenticeship and journeyman work, many people find this too daunting with not enough reward. Matthew said that so many young workers find it hard to commit when a new thing involving less work — and maybe more money — shows up every few months.
As I’ve shared in this space before, after serving eight years in the Air Force, my dad started employment with General Electric as a home repairman. He was properly trained and compensated and moved up the ladder over a period of ten years before he was transferred to Kentucky in an appliance management position. He didn’t attend college and had no formal degree, but he knew the work involved on both sides of GE’s business – in the factory and at the desk. In the end, my dad accepted early retirement at age 60. His position was eliminated. The company created three new positions paying less money to fill that gap – positions that went to recent college graduates who had never sold an oven or fixed a washing machine. This might be a similar story of bygone days for many folks.
In the past few years, especially unveiled by the global pandemic (which forced businesses and companies to change operating strategies), lay off workers, send people home, and even close up shop for good, we’ve seen employment in all sorts of industries truly face the music. The reality of actually paying a living wage in this country is an actual topic of arguments, not a financial and social given, as it should be. Global supply chain issues, companies with only the bottom line as their concern, continuous gender, economic, geographic, and racial inequity in hiring and money-lending practices, and the rising costs of everything – food, fuel, childcare, healthcare, construction materials, homes, rent – have all wreaked havoc on this country as of late. Or at least it’s now being seen fully.
The cabinetmaker, Matthew, does work as a subcontractor to make ends meet between his own jobs. He’s responsible for a few workers and always wants them to have decent work and be paid fairly. For 15 years, he’d had a great relationship with that big-box company. But recently, they changed their business methods and pay structures. While working to pay his employees a decent wage, he’s not receiving fair compensation anymore from the big company. He opined that this conglomerate is cutting corners wherever it can to raise the stock price in anticipation of the company president’s retirement next year. The new “supervisor” at the big box, he says, comes to the job with a degree in business but no actual business acumen, construction experience, building expertise, or basic knowledge of tools. If he did, Matthew shared, they’d have to pay everyone a lot more money.
This was just one person’s story of how his world is changing overnight. I hear countless more from struggling folks in the community with little or no income to even think of surviving properly. One guy shared that he was offered a job in town, but he had no savings to purchase work clothes, especially a good pair of boots or transportation to get to work. Let’s not even think about the savings nest egg required to come up with a security deposit and the first month’s rent to give him and his family a decent place to live. He said he really wants to work but just can’t afford it. The long road ahead had him start by living with friends, accepting hand-me-down clothes, and either walking or biking six miles each way to the new job. He prays he doesn’t get sick, that he has access to a shower, and that his bike isn’t stolen.
Welcome to our world.