2010-09-02 / Sam Bari

The upside of the down economy

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

Maybe Mom was right. If you look hard enough, you can find a blessing in everything – even if that blessing is nothing more than a lesson.

Finding something good that resulted from the economic downturn was no easy task.

However, an astute reader from Florida stepped up to the plate, so to speak, and wrote in to say that there are some good things about this system that we can’t understand. Like service improves in a down economy.

It’s true. I’ve noticed that whenever I go to a store. The clerks and support personnel are more courteous, helpful and generally eager to please. As if they value any business that comes their way.

The people who have jobs are grateful, and they’re making sure that nothing happens to jeopardize whatever precious position it is they are filling.

Even Home Depot has turned around and hired employees that know something about the departments in which they work. Big business has finally discovered that spending the few extra dollars required to invest in knowledgeable employees can dramatically improve the bottom line. Hiring cheap incompetent help is not a wise decision.

During my teenage years, anyone driving through most city neighborhoods on any given Saturday would see men young and old under the hoods of their cars. They repaired, customized and improved their own vehicles.

They could also be seen at work on major home projects, like building an addition, putting in a new kitchen or adding a bathroom to their homes.

Fathers showed sons how to use tools, and most were at least moderately skilled before they graduated from high school. Kids in rural areas were very skilled by that age. They learned out of necessity.

Then, automobile manufacturers computerized the vehicles they produced so owners had to take their cars to the dealership for even minor maintenance. America’s love for customizing and working on cars came to an abrupt halt.

About that time, everyone started to think differently. People became specialists in their fields of work – mostly because the computer age took over industry and digital thinking required the workforce to learn complex computer programs indigenous to a variety of areas of expertise.

The days of mechanics knowing little more than combining spark, air and fuel to get an engine running were over. They had to learn computer diagnostics, and the mechanic’s trade became specialized. Car companies turned out factory-trained experts who only worked on specific brands and models.

This happened in the electronics industry as well. People became so entrenched in their chosen fields that whenever they needed anything repaired around the house, they called a specialist.

The TV doesn’t work — call “the guy.” And there’s “a guy” for everything. Even your coffee maker and microwave oven have computers in them. There is no easy fix any more.

However, with the downturn in the economy, people are again being resourceful, and are learning how to repair things themselves. The age of American ingenuity and self-sufficiency is enjoying resurgence.

Manufacturers are starting to manufacture products that consumers can maintain and repair. Those little signs that say, “Do not attempt to repair this item,” and “Only qualified personnel should open this panel” – or words to that effect – are not seen as frequently.

The building industry has standardized everything from the sizes and designs of doors and windows to the configurations and connectors for PVC pipe used in plumbing.

Bathroom and kitchen fixtures and cabinetry are pre-assembled for alleged easy installation, as are a number of other items of interest to homeowners.

One could think that the return of the do-it-yourselfer would put “the guys” who are specialists out of work.

However, that is not the case.

When the do-it-yourselfers discover that their houses aren’t square when they’re attempting to hang a door or install cabinets on a wall, the conversation goes something like this:

Do-it-yourselfer: “Hmmm... this wall is crooked. Now what am I gonna do? The directions don’t say anything about this.”

Do-it-yourselfer’s wife: “Honey, I told ya. It’s a big job. Call “the guy.”

Although most do-it-yourselfers have good intentions, they quickly learn that home improvements and maintenance are not fun; it is actual “work.”

So they call “the guy,” and revive the economy by hiring specialists to repair their mistakes and abandoned projects. And life continues in a system we will never understand.

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