Amidst the controversy over topless waitresses serving beers to Geocon construction workers, Kim Huynh spends a revealing couple of days with a tradie.
Last week the photo of a waitress in a G-string walking into a pack of high-vis workers on the Wayfarer site at Belconnen sent shockwaves through much of the Canberra and the nation.
The incident reinforced stereotypes that businesses and workers in the male-dominated construction sector have spent decades trying to shake.
Recently, I spent a couple of days on the job with James Ballantyne, who most people know as JB handyman. JB’s professional and private life refutes three such stereotypes about tradespeople.
Stereotype 1: The boorish tradie
JB grew up in regional NSW and left school after year 10 to take up an apprenticeship with a big building company. He spent much of his first year cleaning and sweeping.
In 2011, 21-year-old JB moved to the city. He was pushed by pervasive boredom and drug use in his home town and was drawn to the prospect of better wages and new beginnings in the ACT. James started off as a maintenance man for a hotel before branching out on his own as jbhandymanact.com.au.
JB takes safety very seriously. He insisted that I wear a high-vis top or vest even though we were only building a shed. He showed me the scar on his head from a falling block and explained that, “Stuff happens”.
When I asked him whether he had ever experienced hazing or witnessed pranks at work he responded, “No. That would be unsafe.”
Most noticeably, JB abides. He abides difficult clients who assume that he’s trying to rip them off. He abides older and envious tradies who nit-pick at his handy work. He’ll eat just about anything and doesn’t mind what radio station is playing.
JB did his apprenticeship with a South Sudanese bloke whom he befriended and whose wedding he attended as the only white guy.
Basically, JB comes in handy when it comes to all sorts of jobs and people.
Stereotype 2: The low tech tradie
At first JB took on anything that came his way. It was not long however before he had more work than he could handle.
This was in part due to how quickly and effectively JB took advantage of internet advertising and social media. “Everyone’s on to it now,” he says, “but not back then in 2011.”
The most important tool that JB has is his phone which he keeps in a heavy duty cover. It allows him to stay in contact with everyone from representatives of multinational companies to lonely retirees. He uses apps to coordinate jobs and other tradies across Canberra and NSW. Often when clients call, he asks them to send him a picture of the problem so that he can make an initial assessment.
JB’s phone is old, but he sees no reason to upgrade it other than to find out what all this Pokémon Go fuss is about.
JB goes to the gym, rock climbs and plays tennis as a release from work. He takes a calculating almost scientific approach to both his vocation and recreation: Berocca in the morning and one coffee after lunch along with a few vitamins depending on what sports he’s playing and when. This allows JB to maximize his performance with minimal cost.
Stereotype 3: The lazy tradie
JB still takes good old fashioned pride in his work. When he’s finished with a kitchen renovation he always tidies up meticulously or hires a professional to do it for him. Then he takes a picture of the job in its pristine state and says, “That’s my kitchen”, before handing it back to the client.
JB knows that he can’t afford to be lazy. Canberra is no longer a paradise for tradies. Competition is increasingly coming from across the country and around the world.
Thus, it’s not unusual for JB to work into the early morning to finish an urgent commercial job. The only thing that he’s sometimes slow and unreliable on is billing and administration.
Of course not all tradies are like JB. But his story is a reminder of why we should judge people by their character and actions rather than the colour of their collars.
Are tradies misunderstood? Is there a shortage or surplus of good tradies in Canberra? Is there anything distinctive about tradespeople in the ACT? What are the joys and challenges of being a twenty-first century tradie?
As well as being a RiotACT columnist, Kim Huynh is aspiring to fix things as an independent candidate for Ginninderra. This feature is part of his listening and learning tour of the city. Check out more at GoKimbo.com.au