Friday, June 09, 2017

Incentives, Work and "Culture"

We are having some renovations done on our home, and the contractor’s site supervisor, who I’ll call John, had warned me well in advance that the drywall workers were very messy. He said he could not figure out why, but they were very dirty and did not bother to clean up the site. He warned me, and he was right.

There are two kinds of “drywall” workers: the ones that cut and screw/nail in the drywall onto the wooden frame, and the ones who use plaster to finish the wall. The second type of worker puts coats of plaster, which is called “mud,” to make the wall flat. They have to put on more than one coat, and then sand it to take out bubbles and make it smooth.

You can get a sense of what drywall workers do by looking at the pictures at this "how to" site here.   

The drywall workers were all Mexican, and they worked very fast. They work on stilts so that they don’t have to move ladders and go up and down. But when they were done, they left a mess in their wake. There were scraps of drywall, screws, tools all over the floor. Once the mud work started, the powdered plaster was everywhere and splots of plaster covered the floor all the way down the stairs and outside the door. These blobs landed on the floor when they took breaks and went outside. There was even white plaster on the walk outside our house. Fortunately the floors were covered with “ram board,” which protects them. This was amazing; the workers who had done demolition had not created the same kind of dust and mess.

Part of the reason for the mess is that the plaster powder is dusty and hard to keep under control. Plus, when the workers mix it, bits of it easily go spinning out of the bucket as they use the electric mixer to prepare the “mud” to a proper consistency. And then the sanding will inevitably cause a lot of dust. Still, that is only part of the reason. Tile workers also have to mix grout and cut tiles, and they don’t make that kind of mess. And they don’t leave a trail of plaster when they take breaks.

John had told me that he could not figure out why the drywall workers were so messy. He said they were the only trade that was so messy. Carpenters, plumbers, everyone else cleaned up after themselves.

It might be tempting to give a “cultural” explanation, and say it is because the workers are Mexican. This would be false, because the tile workers have been working recently and they are meticulous and very clean, and they are also Mexican. I also hasten to add that these kinds of “cultural” explanations are at best misleading, more likely totally wrong. When I was a kid, it was an ethnic slur but taken as common knowledge that Mexicans were “lazy.” Now, it is universally accepted that Mexicans are very hard workers. I don’t think Mexican culture has changed in one generation. Similar changes have occurred to Western perceptions of Chinese culture; Chinese have gone from working hard but not efficiently or intelligently in the 1950s, to being frighteningly efficient and intelligent workers today. If culture changes that quickly, what kind of explanatory power does it have? No, it is the American perception that has changed.

I was curious as to what could be the cause of drywall workers being so messy, so I asked John how the drywall workers are paid. Just as I suspected, they are paid by the square foot. Piece-rate! In fact, I found out from our contractor that drywall workers charge extra if you want them to clean up. Cleaning up is not part of their job. It ends up being cheaper for the contractor to use her own workers to clean up rather than pay the drywall workers to do it. So, they of course do not worry about cleaning up. Tile workers are paid by the job; there are tolerances for how even the tiles need to be, so they cannot rush a job. And they keep the job site clean.

Economists and economic anthropologists know the importance of incentives. We take it for granted that incentives strongly influence human behavior. Many people know that, but many also do not, or do not think of it. People are often tempted to make generalizations about the “culture” of an occupational group, or an ethnic group. In fact, in this case at least, the “messiness” of the workers is easily explained by the incentives they are working under.

There is also an additional layer, however, that does relate to “occupational culture.” Our contractor mentioned that until the recession of 2008, drywall workers only worked on new construction projects. Small renovation work was not of interest to them. Renovators used to have to do drywall “in-house” (with their own staff). John told me that because it is dusty, and it is easy to get cut while cutting the drywall, most carpenters do not like to do that work. And those who specialize in it are very fast and efficient at it. Because new construction decreased dramatically after 2008, the drywall workers were willing to take smaller renovation projects. And since there is a lot of renovation work available, and they’ve gotten used to working at small jobs, they continue to do renovation work even though the economy has picked up again.

But their way of working seems to still be that of work on new construction. As John put it, they seem to forget that there are people living in the house they are working on. In a new construction site, it does not matter if plaster gets on the floor, because the floor probably has not been finished, or even laid. It is different in a renovation, and it seems these workers have not modified their work practices. Maybe we could call this an occupational culture of "messiness" that carries over from working on new construction.

Many people are telling me that the labor market is getting tight. Indeed, my contractor told me that there is now a shortage of labor. She has trouble finding good carpenters. She said that the carpenters they get are often older; young people want a desk job, or something with computers. Yet, carpenters can make a good salary, easily $70,000 per year, she says. Her husband (who does office work for her renovation business) has pointed out that the tradesmen are in much better shape than he is, because they are always moving. Desk work is not very healthy, actually. But Americans tend to look down on physical labor, even on highly skilled work, much like Chinese do. Young people are less willing to go into the trades. There probably is some "cultural" bias at work, but I suspect that salary is still higher for most office work, and contributes to this bias. 

If we look at government wage statistics, we can see that while an experienced tradesman can make a good living, managers in office jobs can make more. Here are the annual mean wages for a few trades:

“Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Occupations:” $46,690
      Carpenters: $48,340
      Helpers—carpenters: $30,020
      Cabinetmakers and Bench Carpenters: $34,800

This is higher than wages in Sales (average $40,560, but only $25,940 for Retail Sales Workers), and higher than wages in “Office and Administrative Support Occupations” (average $37,260, and $33,010 for “Office Clerks, General”). On the other hand, “First-Line Supervisors of Sales Workers” average $51,230, and “First-Line Supervisors of Office and Administrative Support Workers” make $57,890, so it may well be that young people are anticipating higher wages down the road when they can become supervisors, rather than focusing on the average wages of workers.

The case of messy drywall workers shows the importance of incentives (they are paid by piece-rate), but also the effect of occupational culture (they are used to work on new construction projects). Added to all this is the perception of work (of drywall work being dusty and “dirty,” and of construction and physical labor being less desirable than office work). “Culture” ends up being used in many different ways to summarize the current situation, and often does not really explain anything, but provides a hook for our description. As this example shows, there are many factors that influence "culture," so just calling it "culture" can be a circular explanation. We’re still struggling to describe all these factors clearly, especially how the different factors interact with each other. 

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