Many years ago, I dropped out of school to embark on an electrical apprenticeship. I was never a particularly good electrician – something about really disliking the work meant that it was a vocational choice that was sub-optimal in the extreme. Completing an apprenticeship, however, gives me two distinct benefits. Firstly, it means that my two sons get free electrical services for their recently purchased joint first home. Secondly, it gave me some practical skills that have proved useful in other areas – from building my own house to my hobby of furniture-making. There’s something to be said for a manual trade and the dexterity that it brings.

I’m sure someone will suggest (likely justifiably) that it’s a male trait, but I quite like that I can walk into a building supplies store and, generally speaking, talk the lingo. I know the difference between bullnose and building paper, rondo and rebar and hate to feel like the person asking a mystified shop assistant where I can find a thingie that attaches to a whatsit. And don’t even start me on going to the yard to buy wood. Wood gets burned in the fireplace, building happens with timber.

Anyway, all of this is by way of an explanation for a little bit of a chip I have on my shoulder – I know the basics of the building trade and expect those who serve me at the building supplies store to do similarly. Which leads me to this week’s rant (and, yes, I am cognisant that I do sometimes err on the side of brickbats rather than bouquets, I do try and balance that out sometimes).

The other day I was installing some new gates I recently made (macrocarpa with draw-bored mortice and tenons, for those who were about to ask). I needed to concrete in a couple of posts to take the weight of the not-insignificant gates. I tootled on down to the building supply store and grabbed a bag of the finest Portland cement.

Now for anyone who has never mixed concrete, cement is the stuff that makes a little bit of water and a lot of sand and stones set into something as hard as… well, concrete. Specifically, it is the chemical substance used for construction that sets, hardens, and adheres to other materials to bind them together. Take a little bit of builders mix (itself a mix of aggregate and sand), mix in your cement, add some water and mix thoroughly and – hey presto! – you have concrete ready to pour.

Anyway, long story short, I carried my bag of cement to the checkout where the individual behind the counter asked what it was. The bag had “cement” in huge letters written upon it but just in case this person was suffering from an uncorrected myopia, I explained that it was a bag of cement.

The response was just the sort of thing that makes a middle-aged, red-blooded, DIY-loving male heart sink: “What’s that?” Bear in mind that this was at one of those huge big-box building supply chains that dot our country from the North to the South. A nationwide chain that prides itself on being able to serve the needs of professional builders and DIYers alike. How on earth is it possible to employ someone in a place like that who has no inkling of what cement is? The mind truly boggles.

And all of this got me thinking, yet again, about our recent sojourns in Europe, a place where, generally speaking, people take huge pride in their work and what they do. While IN New Zealand it’s sadly common to bemoan the poor service received from a barista, waiter or mechanic, it seems that in Europe, where vocational training is taken seriously and something that we regard flippantly as a dead-end job, like waiting on tables, is viewed as a craft to be mastered.

I didn’t have the need to buy cement in Europe, I’m fairly certain it would have decimated my baggage allowance, but I’m pretty certain that if I’d entered a Polish building supply store, and asked for whatever they call cement in Polski (helpfully cement portlandzki as Google tells me), I’d have been met with understanding, rather than bored stares of ignorance.

I get it. It’s just a bag of cement and regardless of the lack of knowledge by the shop assistant, I made my purchase anyway. It doesn’t really matter, right? But service extends to all places, even the building supply depot, and it’s something we tend to do poorly in this country.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

  • I once accidentally used the word cement instead of concrete in conversation with an engineer friend of mine who has a PhD in concrete and used to work for the concrete council. You’ve never seen a more shocked and disappointed face from someone then at that moment when I made the mistake!

  • Felix Borenstein |

    They walk amongst us…..

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