Where are the heroes?

Leadership and discipline inspire new talent

Kerry Knudsen

I HAD A GREAT CALL last week from Gary Stark, an old-timer in the industry and a long-time design teacher in multiple schools. Thanks, Gary, for the lovely compliments to Coverings and the team. As the conversation wandered, Stark said something really interesting. He said our design colleges have lost their courage and we have lost our heroes. He granted that there are still a few Canadian role models in the arts in the States, but we have walked away from our leadership role.

We hear a lot about heroes, mentors and role models in our professional- improvement seminars, but have we lost track of what that means? It’s worth a thought.

For example, is a mentor somebody that can get you a job — any job — by filling out the right forms and talking to the right person? If so, does that same definition make the mentor a hero? Not in my book. To me, a hero or a mentor or a role model should relate directly back to quality. There is an old book laying around that delves deeply into quality and its meaning: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, by Robert Persig. I think it’s a fantastic read, and I don’t even own a motorcycle.

They say when the teacher is ready, the student will appear. Assuming we have some heroes in the industry, some high-quality/high-value successes with a desire to pass on what they know, where should we look for the apprentices? I mean, is it really a fact that we have no heroes?

In this issue’s CFCRA column, Lee Senter takes a look at the vacant landscape of installer-applicants. Chris Maskell looks at training, as well, in his NFCA column, and Contributing Editor Mike Edwards cites them both in this issue’s training feature. It’s not as if people are not looking for applicants and workers. Edwards reports one of his sources came by his skills in part by, “apprenticing to a pair of German master tile-installers.” When was the last time you heard of an applicant looking for a master? Cheque? Yup. Vacation? Yup. Flex hours? Yup. A hard drive to master a hard skill? Not so much. The wisdom of the ages says that idle hands are Satan’s workshop. I wonder if the ancients waited for others to pay off their student loans.

I am fond of repeating a story of an applicant I had for a sales job here at W.I. Media. This young fellow assured me (by e-mail) that he was the be-all and end-all of sales, that he could rake in the orders with one hand tied behind his back. “The only condition,” he said, “is that I need a guarantee of $70k a year.” “That is no problem,” I replied. Anybody that sells for W.I. Media should be able to make $70k easy. However, since you want a guarantee, it’s only fair that if I guarantee you $70k in salaries and bonuses, you should be able to guarantee me $500,000 in sales.”

Clearly, he did not see me as a hero. I never heard from him again. Is there anything to be done? I think so, but it will take organization and action. We have an opportunity. The pendulum of low-cost/low-quality dumping from Asia is starting to swing back. Too many people have been harmed too many ways, and the lowest-cost-wins formula has weakened. This provides a chance to affect change.

I think some of our kids’ heroes in the arts tell them the wrong stuff, and I think they should stop. Those of us working our way through society, business and the economy have had our expectations forged to comply with reality.

I think waiting for somebody else to meet our expectations before we go to work is the wrong thing. To get through my apprenticeship, I worked as a fence builder, a flooring installer, a shingler, a hide cutter in an abattoir, a welfare worker and who-knows-what-all. And I make more than $70k per year. But I didn’t start there and didn’t expect to. My mentors wouldn’t let me.

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