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Death of the tradesman

Bygone era: former telecommunications minister Michael Scott, left, shows off stamps celebrating Bermuda tradesmen. However, that success appears significantly locked in the past

I recall years ago hearing the buzzwords “tipping point” and, of late, "inflection point" as maybe appropriate. I have to say that based on personal experience with the labour market, the early Nineties were our tipping point. I was fortunate to grow through the complete spectre of evolution to devolution of tradesmanship in Bermuda.

My very first job was in 1963 at E.C. Smith’s carpenter shop, which was an old tin-roof building at the location of the now Hamilton Pharmacy building. His work included furniture making and restorations, along with general household maintenance.

One of his chief clients was Government House, where we would repair and French polish much of the antique wood furniture. This is a skill and art now completely lost, with the last I can recall being Levi Pearman, a generation down from E.C. Smith.

During the Sixties we had a full deck of well-trained and accomplished senior tradesman who helped to propel through apprenticeship schemes another generation of tradesmen; I happened to benefit from that surge. As time progressed, I can recall an experience during the Eighties having a local crew of about six men competing toe to toe with a foreign work crew constructing roofs in a newly built housing development at Midland Heights. If the foreign crew beat us, it would be because they worked ten or 12 hours a day. The point was they were no more efficient hour by hour than the local crew.

A decade later, during the early Nineties, I compared four foreign workers doing the same work that would require six Bermudians to perform in the same period — that being a generous observation. At that point the more reliable and efficient of the local tradesmen were in their sixties and the younger needing supervision. That was our tipping point when it was becoming clear in most fields that local companies could not complete jobs successfully and on time without a contingent of foreign labour being included.

It didn't stop there: by 2000 the technical deficit was very manifest, as most of our mature tradesmen had retired and there had been no replacement of that level of skill among the succeeding generation in the trades. Projects had technical requirements, which too few local tradesman held. The trades and service industry became haplessly reliant on the tradesmanship of foreign workers. Nothing except pride prevented an open acceptance that we were behind the curve and had not replenished a labour force with skill.

In 1968, you needed either the equivalent of a City & Guilds or three years’ apprenticeship under skilled masters to gain a mechanic pay rate. By 2000, persons who could hardly be considered an appropriately trained apprentice was demanding TG pay and in some cases getting it. I recall a man who could scarcely cut a decent-sized roof on his own telling me he will not take out his tools unless he gets $50 an hour.

That was our tipping point, while an inflection point means something different. It means we have moved beyond self-repair and self-sustainability in the area of trades. Therefore, the rules of the market have to change to adjust with the present reality. This doesn’t mean there is no need for local trade, that local trade need not be considered or should not consider training for various fields. What it means is we have to accept the reality that we cannot rely solely on local labour at this present moment and that new exercises of revitalisation must occur to bring our labour up to previously held international standards.

It is no accident that Bermuda labour happens to be here at this inflection point, and there is enough blame to toss around to everyone — it just depends on at which year we wish to fire the bullets. However, more importantly, it is better that we begin to fully recognise our problems because, until we do, we cannot fix them.

Trying to dance or propagandise around the obvious by providing nuanced postures, which amounts to a pseudo appearance of tradesmen’s ability, would only seal our fate as doomed and prevent future generations ever coming in line with real production and tradesmanship.

The Department of Works and Engineering is a prime example of an organisation that once was able to build our King Edward VII Memorial Hospital on time and within a reasonable budget, but now is reduced to inability to build a sidewalk on time. It is the same organisation but just a clear reflection of the deterioration of the labour.

Bermuda faces many inconvenient truths; having a technically depleted labour force is only one. There is no quick fix. Our future education could have an impact on the dilemma, but it will take time — possibly at least a generation.

It is not just technical skills that are needed, but having a moral foundation and purpose in life goes hand in hand with the kinds of discipline that make for a fully developed tradesman.

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Published October 25, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated October 24, 2021 at 3:34 pm)

Death of the tradesman

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