WANTED More Skilled Framers

Builders: An otherwise rewarding homebuilding season has been encumbered by a shortage of carpenters.

July 19, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Seems you can't get good help these days.

Just ask framer Ronald White. Working in one of the busiest homebuilding seasons in years, he has struggled all spring to find carpenters. He has put ads in the newspapers and raised his starting pay. But workers either don't show up or don't stay.

Soon after starting a job in Howard County, he had three men quit in one day.

"This is as bad as I've ever seen it," said White, who has been building houses for 15 years.

Throughout the country, builders are struggling to find skilled workers, with framers topping the builders' wish list. Through May, new-home sales in the Baltimore area jumped to 4,484 units compared with 3,434 for the same period a year before, and the shortage of workers became more acute.

Every Sunday, the "help wanted" ads plead for carpenters, offering between $8 and $17 an hour with paid vacations and holidays. But frequently those jobs go begging.

Andre Levrone, a Laurel framing contractor, spent more than $1,200 advertising for help in two newspapers, but turned up no one willing to tackle the jobs.

"There are easier jobs that pay more money," Levrone said.

He oversees 45 carpenters but would like to hire 10 to 15 more. "Work is really booming," he said.

In the past, he could rely on college students to fill out the ranks of his framing crews, but these days the students seem to have other opportunities. Instead, the carpenters he does have are working overtime, some clocking 60 hours a week.

Yet, like other contractors, he hesitates to raise wages for fear that housing costs will rise and choke the building resurgence.

"The snowball effect will reach the consumers, and if the consumers can't afford the houses, we're all out of work," Levrone said.

While the shortage of workers has not translated into a rise in home prices, it is causing delays in construction and increasing the time it takes to deliver a house to the customer.

"I'm finding it is more difficult to schedule the construction," said Howard Saslow, a builder who is president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

When the crews do show up, they are in a hurry to move onto the next job and reluctant to return to finish details or make corrections, he said.

"The companies are pushing their employees to get done quickly. Everybody is going at full tilt," Saslow said.

A survey of builders in September found that 70 percent reported shortages of rough and finishing carpenters and framing crews, and two-thirds were concerned about the quality of the workers they did find.

The shortage of framers and other skilled workers is being driven by a number of factors, according to Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research for the National Association of Home Builders.

Many of the skilled workers left the construction business during the recession of July 1990 to March 1991, and those in the business today often are less experienced. In addition, fewer young people want to learn a trade, viewing construction as dirty, tedious and requiring few skills. And those who give construction work a try may not stay in the business long enough to hone their skills.

All the while, the crews are being asked to build bigger, more complex houses. The recent upswing in the building industry has made the shortage of workers more acute.

Hard to keep

In April 1997, the jobless rate for construction workers across the country was 7.6 percent, compared with 5.1 percent this April.

"For the past 1 1/2 years, it has been really tough to find good guys," said Dave Zimlin, owner of Main Street Contractors, a home improvement company.

Zimlin has offered improved benefits and incentives to his employees.

"It's hard to keep them and make sure they are more of an asset to the company rather than a liability," he said.

With the increased building activity, the reliable crews the builders have come to depend on simply aren't enough, said Linda Veach, vice president of Bob Ward Homes.

In a usual year, the Ward company would have 40 houses under construction at any one time. Currently, it has 100, she said. "The crews you've been using can't be stretched to cover the volume."

Learning curve

Finding quality framers becomes especially critical, because the work of the other trades depends on the framers laying a square, true house.

"It is so important that they are quality workers," said Veach, whose company builds 300 homes a year.

Although the Ward company has hired new framing crews, it takes time to teach them new floor plans and that slows work down. Townhouses that should be built in 120 days are taking another two weeks to complete, according to Veach.

"There's the learning curve," she said.

The same is happening in the building of single-family homes, where contractors can't get enough workers to fill crews.

T. Kevin Carney, president of Thomas Builders Inc., said it is taking workers 120 days to finish a single-family home rather than the usual 110 days.

The labor shortage, along with bad weather in May, has put some builders even further behind.

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