Wanted: good workers

Scramble: To fill their building crews, contractors are scrambling for migrants, trainees, even prisoners on work release.

April 15, 2001|By Hope Keller | Hope Keller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Anyone who's tried to hire a contractor lately knows the problem: There aren't enough to go around. You're lucky if anyone even returns your calls.

For builders, the continuing labor shortage in the construction trades is more than inconvenient. With the average age of American construction workers estimated at 38 to 50 years, and no younger generation coming along to take their place, the situation is difficult and getting worse.

"It's a problem now, a crisis in 10 years," said Dennis Day, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America.

Dave Cassell, a job supervisor for Howard County-based Patriot Homes, thinks the labor crunch is already critical.

"It's horrendous," Cassell said, surveying one of the 26 houses Patriot has under construction in the River Hill section of Columbia.

While workers have become increasingly scarce in the last few years, the residential building boom continues, even with the U.S. economy slowing down. Homes continue to spring up by the thousands on what was once farmland in the counties around Baltimore.

So if there aren't enough workers to keep up with demand, how are these houses getting built? An informal survey of builders, contractors, union officials and employment agencies provides this answer: slowly, and increasingly by Central American migrants.

Roberta Kratz, the owner of All Pro Temps in Baltimore, said it's no surprise that Central Americans are making inroads in the construction industry.

"They don't seem to mind grunt work," said Kratz, who supplies workers for the building trades. "It's not beneath them."

Americans, on the other hand, are spoiled: "They want everything for nothing."

Many workers from Central America are not sufficiently experienced for local builders, however. Nor do they hew to the local way of doing things. Most important, they don't speak English. Add this to the overall labor shortage and you've got longer building times, higher costs and higher prices.

A Patriot house in River Hill should take about 90 to 100 days to build, Cassell said, but it's currently taking 140 to 150 days.

"What once took a day now takes a day and a half," Cassell said. "You factor it in."

"We're 40 days behind schedule on this house, easy," he said of a home that is nearly completed. A worker is sweeping in the garage, and a punchout guy is going over the last odds and ends to make sure that the house is ready to be handed over to the owners.

Cassell's problems started at the beginning of construction. The Honduran crew he hired to do the framing took six weeks to complete the job instead of the 10 to 12 days Cassell said it should have taken.

Complicating matters, he doesn't speak Spanish, and the crew didn't speak English.

"The language barrier is the worst," said Cassell, who estimates that, all the trades taken together, Hispanics make up at least 50 percent of workers. Americans pre- dominate in the skilled trades - plumbing, electric, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) - but Hispanics increasingly predominate elsewhere, such as in landscaping, drywall and concrete work and painting. Some are legal immigrants; some aren't.

As of 1999, according to a survey done by the National Association of Home Builders, 15 percent of all workers in the construction trades and 25 percent of all construction laborers were Hispanics, compared with 10 percent in the rest of the national economy.

Christmas vanishing act

Cultural differences seem to be a problem as well. The entire Honduran framing crew disappeared for two weeks at Christmastime. "They didn't even say anything," said Cassell, still exasperated.

Michael Hickey, production manager at Patriot, agreed that the labor shortage is causing problems.

"It costs us more to build houses," he said. "We have to watch people longer and do more things to ensure the quality that is expected."

Rick Kunkle, president of Patriot Homes, said the tight labor market was hard on homebuyers, who often can't coordinate settlement and moving dates. "It's more difficult for our customers," he said.

It's certainly difficult for builders.

"When I built houses in the '80s, [subcontractors] were in the house every day," Hickey said. "If someone wasn't there, I'd call them up and say, `You have till noon to get there,' or I'd replace them. Today, it's acceptable for a plumber to say: `You know what? I'm short men this week. I won't be there till Monday.' What am I going to do, fire them?"

Houses seem better

Hickey and other builders emphasized that, although workers today are in short supply and often inexperienced, the houses they build are probably better than those built 20 years ago.

"Even though people in the industry are a problem, the quality has to improve because the consumer is demanding it," he said.

While builders used to build "square boxes," Hickey said, today's houses are more sophisticated, filled with the bells and whistles - Corian countertops, Jacuzzi tubs, security systems, computer network wiring - that homebuyers now demand.

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