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So many new homes, so few skilled workers

By COLLINS CONNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2000


Ask builders about construction defects and they will point to the labor shortage as the cause.

"It's the No. 1 problem across the nation," said Ron Coppenbarger of Jacksonville, who spearheads the worker recruitment effort of the Florida Home Builders Association.

Statewide, builders need 20,000 additional workers.

In the Tampa Bay area, where the housing boom has lasted nine years and the jobless rate is about 3 percent, the shortage is desperate.

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Construction isn't attracting younger workers, Coppenbarger said. The average age of subcontractors is 48. When 100,000 high school students were polled recently on their career preferences, he said, they ranked subcontractor second from the bottom -- just above cowboy.

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Hidden flaws (with diagram)

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Industry regulation lacking

Home buyers say quality fell through the cracks

U.S. Home: Survey by Times is not accurate

Though the industry is establishing apprenticeships and beefing up its recruiting, for now builders are faced with uninterested workers and, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, more workers with drug and alcohol problems than any other industry.

The scarcity of laborers and their inexperience or indifference slow construction and lead to more mistakes, especially with today's complex house designs.

"Almost every home I go into has got problems," said home inspector Karl Goellner of Realty-Chek Inc.

Here's how some builders try to minimize the impact of labor problems:

Pulte simplified production by cutting the number of floor plans it offers; it put dropboxes on-site so buyers can question or complain about ongoing work.

The Fechtel Co. concentrates its construction in one area to avoid long-distance management; company officials troubleshoot the plans with key subcontractors before work begins.

Suarez hires inspectors to check the houses and avoids intricate designs that add costs and potential mistakes to construction.

U.S. Home reimburses its buyers $200 of the cost of a private inspection and offers a longevity bonus to superintendents who stick with the company.

Some tradespeople said home builders made the labor crisis worse by squeezing wages so tight, they drove skilled workers into custom or commercial jobs, where the pay is better.

Stuart Miller, president of Lennar Homes, said that is an incorrect and simplistic view of economic forces.

"In anything that's produced, and I mean anything," he said, "there's a constant friction between proper costs and keeping costs under control, all the while trying to get a product that's affordable to the average customer."

Miller would get an argument from Joe Koon, who owns a plastering company in Pinellas County.

"We don't do . . . any of that" production housing, Koon said. "They're too cheap, too cheap!

"It's not the coal-mining days. You can't get good people unless you pay good money."

Scott McIlwain of McIlwain Enterprises said low wages draw fly-by-night operators who hire transients and pay them under the table. McIlwain said his framers use OSHA-approved equipment. He runs a drug-free workplace, pays workers' compensation and won't use day laborers. Only custom builders pay him enough to cover those costs, he said .

Scott Tomlinson of Tomlinson Bros. Plastering in Hillsborough County said custom builders pay twice as much for stucco as tract builders.

"If tract builders pay $4.50 to $5.50 per square yard for stucco over block, high-end builders pay $8 to $9.50 per yard," he said. "If tract builders pay $15 to $18 per yard over frame, high-end builders pay $25 to $30."

With tract builders, he said, "you've got a guy with a truck and an old mixer" hiring himself out. "I have to bid against these same guys."

Some contractors don't take bids. They "tell you what they're going to pay you. And you make do or not," Koon said.

How? By cutting materials, disregarding work and hiring the cheapest labor possible.

J.C. Day, a manager for Broco Cements, said certain crew leaders scour Ybor City for Spanish-speaking laborers of uncertain citizenship who work for cash.

Recently, Day said, he drove to a site in a white sedan. Workers mistook it for an INS car, he said:

"Thirteen guys went running off the job site."

The unbuilder

Why does the labor shortage matter so much? Because today's homebuilders don't build.

The national companies, like Lennar, Pulte and U.S. Home, hire a licensed contractors to pull permits under their own names, then they hire construction superintendents to oversee the subcontractors' work.

"All these big builders really don't have anyone working for them except their construction supervision people and a sales force," said Ed Pipino Jr., a contractor and state-licensed inspector.

"Everyone who constructs a home is a subcontractor -- that's every single phase."

Builders compete for the same subcontractors; subcontractors pull from the same labor pool.

"When these subcontractors go from U.S. Home to Lennar to Pulte, they bring their bad habits with them," Pipino said. "It's come to be a melting pot that all houses, regardless of their value -- from the house that sells for $100,000 to the one that sells for $350,000 -- were all constructed in the same manner."

U.S. Home and Pulte officials said they work hard to attract and keep qualified subcontractors. "I know we contract for a perfectly built home," said Stuart Miller, Lennar's president. If defects occur, he said, it's "either because a subcontractor is lazy or malicious."

When officials at Highmark Homes realized some subcontractors weren't meeting their standards, they hired a repair crew "whose task is to put right the work we've already paid to have done," Highmark operations manager Bernard Strong said.

Highmark, which builds about 80 homes a year, also hired another superintendent as "extra eyes" during construction.

"The superintendent of a home construction job is like the conductor of an orchestra. How the finished product ends up is so much in his control," said Tom Tafelski of Thomas Inspection Services.

Superintendents don't have to be licensed contractors, and many of them aren't. But superintendents are supposed to work under the supervision of the licensed contractor who is pulling the permits, according to Hillsborough County building official Burt Folce. At times, the supervision is non-existent, he said.

"Probably two years ago, I had a contractor whose home address was in Miami," Folce said. "But he had 100 permits out in Hillsborough County."

When county inspectors repeatedly found fault with the contractor's projects, Folce said, "We called him and said, "Meet us on-site or we're not going to approve anything.' We forced him to come from Miami to see the project.

"That's a problem when the person on the job . . . isn't a licensee."

With builders of custom homes, a superintendent may oversee a single job, maybe two. With high-volume builders, a superintendent may supervise dozens at once. It's stressful work and turnover is high.

Pamela Roehm said Engle Homes went through three superintendents while building her house. She said none of the three visited the site often.

"I put a couple of notes (in the on-site work file) to see how long it was between visits," she said. "It would sometimes be two weeks before they'd see my notation."

She found errors the superintendents hadn't, like a missing bedroom wall.

Harry Engelstein, executive vice president of Engle Homes, wasn't surprised.

"Homeowners see only their house," he said. "The superintendent . . . sees many houses. Does he have a chance to miss things more than the homeowner? Absolutely. It's human nature."

Engelstein said there is practically a price war for superintendents, they're in such demand. "We go as far as we can (with salary) in preventing someone good (from) leaving us. But we can't stop them from going."

Amy Bogue counted "at least four superintendents" when Westfield Homes built her house. "Two got fired. One actually got promoted. It was just horrible," she said.

When the tub didn't fit her home's bathroom, workers jammed it in, she said.

"We just recently resolved that. They ended up giving us a Jacuzzi tub," she said. "It's still shoved in the wall."

(Wayne Weaver, Westfield's vice president of construction, said the Jacuzzi was intended to compensate the couple for the poor installation of the original tub.)

Former Sarasota County building official Charles Everly said a superintendent isn't paid by the errors he catches.

"A superintendent's bonuses at the end of the year, as well as his opportunity to rise in responsibility and stature in the organization, are 100 percent dependent on performance," Everly said.

"And the performance they measure is what price he brings the house in at."

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