Results from our recent Small Shop Survey raise issues that affect the future of our industry.
For example, more than 65 percent of survey respondents were over 45 years old. Less than 10 percent were 35 or younger. On first blush, that would seem to be fairly natural, since the readership of CabinetMaker is dominated by owners and managers, and one would expect those individuals to be older. But is that all there is to it?
I started my first business when I was still in my teens and needed money for college. It seemed natural to launch a small enterprise doing something I enjoyed (making things), and I was too inexperienced to be concerned about my lack of financial resources or business knowledge. Not knowing I could fail was probably my best asset. So, I bumbled along, making tons of mistakes, but continuing to learn and, most of the time at least, making enough money to pay the rent and other expenses.
Sometimes I'd pause to muse on what my father might have thought of these efforts. He had been a successful corporate executive but had passed away long before I made my first entrepreneurial attempts, so I never got any hand-me-down business advice. Now I wonder if younger people who might consider launching businesses are even more lacking in not only advice but inspiration.
The concept of apprentice-journeyman-master that fills the trades pipelines with a steady stream of workers in other countries seems noticeably absent here. We are the do-it-yourself culture that wants it now and bypasses whenever possible the long, slow routes to success.
That's why the low numbers of younger shop owners in our survey give me pause. If younger people aren't willing to dive in and try to run shops, they'll not make it to those middle-aged managers and owners who dominate the numbers.
From what I've seen of school programs both academic and vocational the vast emphasis is on going to work for someone else, not on starting your own business. It's often the same in shops. Owners complain about training people and having them leave to be their competition, so there's little incentive to groom future owners and managers, even as a retirement plan. Too many shop owners have exit strategies of simply shutting the doors and then selling all the shop machinery and real estate.
So, who will the next generation of cabinetmakers be? Are they young people with some innate entrepreneurial bent but who still want to work with their hands, much as the current aging crop of shop owners? Or will trends to automation, outsourcing and off-shore construction create a whole different breed of shop owners?
I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think it would be sad as an industry if we can't find a way to nurture and encourage the same kind of sentiments that got most of us started in the first place.
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