A Bright Future for Josephine the Plumber

A Bright Future for Josephine the Plumber

I had no complaints, really, the last time I called a plumber. The nice lady on the phone (Lorraine) was efficient, she gave me a four hour window and sent out a cheerful plumber (Brent). He fixed the pipes under my sink then gave me a bill as well as a warning that things were not going in the right direction pipe-wise and he might have to come back and do a much bigger repair job. He was at pains to tell me he was not trying to upsell me though, and was eager for me to see exactly what he was talking about (I looked to make him happy, not bothering to tell him that my economist skills gave me little insights into what he was talking about). I wrote out a check, and everyone was happy.

josephineHappy as I was, it did occur to me that the whole call-the-plumber experience was something that could have happened on the Brady Bunch (which come to think of it, did have a plumber character in Sam, Alice’s boyfriend. But I digress). The industry, comprised as it is of many small contractors and a simple work structure, has not changed in decades. That may soon change, however.

According to this article from Forbes, the plumbing industry is about to go high-tech. On-line scheduling is apparently going to happen, plumbers will carry iPads to check inventory, billings can be processed on site and you will maybe even get a twitter feed of new plumbing news (well, I made that one up, but it could certainly happen). Sam the plumber will utilize a lot more than his plunger.

So why the change? Well, a lot will apparently be driven by the millennial generation taking over mom and dad’s plumbing operation and rolling their eyes at the order books and yellow-sticky notes. They will be ordering more equipment and setting up Facebook pages for sure. I have not actually seen any statistics on how many 20somethings are taking over family plumbing businesses, but I would hope it is a lot, for their sakes. In many ways, taking over a profitable small business beats pounding the pavement in a nasty labor market.

What I do know is that service businesses in general are ripe for makeover. As the population ages and wants to stay in their homes, they are going to need more plumbers and electricians, as well as basic service providers who can get on a ladder and change a light bulb. According to the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey, the average U.S. household headed by someone aged over 65 spent $1,659 on household repair and maintenance services in 2013, which is about 40 percent more than the $1,182 spent by the average of all households. As that older segment grows, home services will be a goldmine to those who can figure out how to succeed at them.

The evolution of the industry might mean a consolidation of small players into chains with one easy number to call for all services (much like ordering pizza), and ownership could be by anyone from Home Depot through to Amazon. Hopefully that leads to more efficiency, or at least more predictability. Small players could still survive, but they will need to be nimble and tech savvy to do so.

The next generation of Sam’s will need good technical skills, good practical skills and good business skills as well. It will be worth acquiring them though. Not every industry will be a growth one in the decades to come but home services seem like they may well be the place to be.

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