As a journalist, I get tasked with researching some pretty dry topics. I waited patiently to interview a veteran plumber about heat pump installation as a strategy for meeting Queensland’s emissions targets. Dry. So. Dry. The plumber, now the owner of a plumbing company with a dozen or so vans on the road, has had to take a call. One of his team has hit a problem on a job.
I gaze out the office window. It’s a mid-sized firm in a North Brisbane industrial area overlooking a busy street, travelled mostly by tradie trucks. A competitor is waiting at the lights.
“Can’t run a second one…put a duo valve behind the T…..nah, prevent rain water running into potable water… you’ll need a backflow prevention valve…” Plumbing speak…
He hangs up and glances out at the competitor’s heavily branded late model ute.
“Never bring in those guys to do your plumbing at home, they’re franchise cowboys. They’re businessmen, who buy up territories, hire the cheapest labour they can get and send them out to do jobs that are completely out of their league, half the time. And, they trade on that brand name, charging twice what the rest of us are charging. Don’t get me started…”
For the record, I did not, indeed, get him started.
So, while heat pump installations are high on the agenda, I get to thinking about how trades and construction have changed since my childhood. It used to be that you’d call a plumber with a name like Dennis or Barry (not Five Star Brisbane Plumbing Company). It was in your mother’s Roladex. Barry knew your uncle Neill from the army. He’d been a plumber for thirty years and he came when he said he’d come. He did a good job for a fair price. He may have stopped afterwards for a coffee to “catch up on what’s been going on.”
Back in the day, advertising for Barry was a $25 classified ad in the local paper. There was no social media. There were no “portal sites” where he paid thousands of dollars for leads because some corporate referral agency outranks him in search results. Sure, there were a few tradies-done-good who would splurge on a radio ad, or a quarter pager in the daily…. But they weren’t the norm. The norm were plumbers and sparkies and bricklayers who competed solely on reputation and expertise, not the size of a marketing budget. The day of the local plumber is gone.
I look back at my interviewee. He’s recently returned from a global technology conference on reducing emissions and water conservation. The heat pumps. Back to the heat pumps.
But, he’s a business owner. He’s not on the tools. He’s not Barry. But he is. He’s the modern Barry-done-good. He knows the trade like the back of his weathered hands.
I’ve seen his ads. They talk about good ole’ fashioned service. They talk about quality work and plumbing expertise. Just like the franchisee’s business. How do you even quantify that? In the age of small-business-vs-big-brand, those words have become meaningless.
The internet, and digital marketing agencies, have killed off the local tradie but it’s also killed off language. It’s devalued words like quality and service. Two very important words. Words where meaning should be sacred. The internet was supposed to “level the playing field” instead it created a consumer mine field.
Barry still exists, only Barry isn’t just fixing your blocked loo. He’s studying up on water efficiencies. He’s seeking out energy efficient water heating. He’s staying abreast of environmental laws. He’s fighting global warming and water shortages in the vanguard. He’s battling big business. He’s battling impossible costs. But he (or she) is still out there. Only, you won’t find him in the Yellow Pages or the classifieds, you’ll probably find him on page two of Google search results, so you’re going to have to search a little harder.