The Artisan who won’t compete: Portland, Oregon

Anonymous — Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Band 1. Nürnberg 1426–1549. Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Amb. 317.2°, via http://www.nuernberger-hausbuecher.de/

While there are many reasons to love Portland including its fetishization of “artisanal” and “local” things, there is much to lament in this system as well. Recently I was considering having some work done on a variety of items and found out that the artisans in Portland are often lazy, overpaid, and underemployed. In some ways the aesthetic here is not that of the noble working man (or woman) of the 19th century — but rather the Cheech and Chong worldview of Up in Smoke or worse.

A group I worked with needed to hire a handyperson or electrician to change a light fixture.

When we first decided that we needed a energy efficient fixture installed, one long term resident laughed and said “How many Portland “Professionals” (dripping with irony here) does it take to change a light bulb?” We all laughed. We soon stopped laughing.

We were sure that the professionals who often brag about their “English Speaking Staff” (no that is not racist, really, it is not at all, really) would act like professionals should: make bids, respond to queries, and make counter offers if needed. That is how things are done. From the Viktualienmarkt of Munich, to the streets of LA, New York, and Chicago, small scale capitalism thrives on competition and haggling. Having to compete keeps professionals on their game, keeps them honest, and keeps them hard working. We were sure the light fixture would be completed in a week.

We were wrong.

So we called two handy-person companies, and four electricians. The two handy-person companies came out right away which seemed like a good sign, but was not. The first, despite being told to inquire about the job just showed up. He brought a 12 food ladder but needed a 24 foot ladder. He left, and never did the job. The second came, and replaced the bulb (not the fixture), and installed the improper bulb for the fixture/ballast. So, we told him we were not paying him. He has still not picked up his bulb.

Then we moved on to the electricians. Of the three emailed only one replied. Of the one called, who showed up, he did not return a request for a quote even after inspecting the fixture. Ok, perhaps he is making so much money a $500 job is not worth his time. The third, which we contacted after 60 days had passed and these other idiots were not able to change the fixture, was the best of the three. So, after nearly 60 days, and contacting 6 “professionals” only one actually did the job.

We are happy to have the light working, but this is a job most people could do in about 30 minutes if they had a 24 foot ladder. None of us did, so we thought to hire someone. But the fact that people were too lazy or too stupid to do it right led us to respond to the joke about “How many people does it take to change a light bulb in Portland” with the answer 6. It takes six people to finally find one who can do the job.

We also wanted to get a $100 chair reupholstered recently and decided to clean it instead. Now, a job like the one we had might cost $200 in LA, or Chicago, or Cleveland, but in Portland you can expect several people not to reply, and when you get a quote you are going to need a chair to sit in. So, we asked around and there were no long time upholstery services suggested to us so we went on Yelp. What we found were companies that replied “we are not taking any more work” and another that suggested the following:

$75 for cloth

Almost $600 to do the work

and $170 to pick it up and drop it off

Total cost: at least $875

Did I mention that this was a $100 chair?

Now, at that price you are dealing with a company that is charging 100% more than most places who do this work nationwide. In NYC one might pay $300–400 for this job, and in LA or Chicago (depending on fabric) it might cost $200–400. But in Portland, the prices are so high that you can expect an insanely high quote, and a silly stubbornness. This is what happens when “artisans” are really well funded hobbyists who are not professionals. This is not a Herman Miller Executive Chair (those can run $1000–6000 a piece), but rather a nice mid-range chair owned by a normal person who does not earn $300 an hour for a labor rate.

So, I inspected my chair and it has no rips and is in pretty good shape, so I am having it cleaned. Much cheaper DIY.

Anonymous — Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Band 1. Nürnberg 1426–1549. Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Amb. 317.2°, via http://www.nuernberger-hausbuecher.de/

The window — porch addition. A neighbor came into a little equity money since his $300,000 home is now valued at $500,000 and wanted to put a small addition onto his home. Think 3 feet out, 10 feet tall, and a picture window or sliding porch door. Not a “big” job, and in fact I helped a friend do one of these about 10 years ago. He has never told me what he paid for this work, but he started this job about the same time I started trying to find someone to fix the communal light bulb problem.

About 75 days after the start of the project it looks like it might soon be done. But it was a gaping hole for many months, and my friend had to hang blankets in the hallways to block the heat from that room so he was not forced to have a giant hole in the wall run his electrical bill into the $1000 range. The workers came when they wanted to, took ample time off for the holidays, and are still not done weeks after they promised the job done. My neighbor might very well have a nice addition sometime this spring. It could very well be that the contractors who took on the job were cheap, or idiots, or both, and considering that a job like that might run $4000 in most other cities, I was not surprised to hear that some “top” contractors were quoting $15,000. Really, it would be cheaper to fly a work crew up from LA or Minneapolis and put them up for 10 days than to hire some moustached slacker in $600 glasses with a very cool iPad design app for $15,000 to do what you and your brother back in Ohio could do in a long weekend (ok, or two).

Without hard working immigrant electricians, upholsterers, and other tradesmen, you are stuck with lazy workers, shoddy work, and labor rates that are higher than even the quoted union rates. So, an electrician does 30 minutes of work, but you pay $350 labor fee. So, an upholsterer does 2 hours of work and gets $300 an hour? Yes, in Portland. Would they be in business anywhere else. Not on your life.

Artisan: a way to rip people off.

Artisan pickles: you make them yourself.

Portland needs more migration of skilled and unskilled workers to bring greater dynamism and competition — the “artisans” have grown, lazy, tired, and complacent (legalized marijuana has not helped) and deserve to be replaced by newcomers willing to fix a light bulb or build an addition faster, better, and for a fairer price.

Bring on the flood!

Or, do everything yourself.

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