Industry members know that the workforce is aging, with fewer young people coming to replace them.
Ted Swanson, owner of Trinity Exteriors in Eden Prairie, Minn., has quantitative evidence of the shrinking labor pool. Ten years ago, Swanson alerted local construction networks of his company’s labor needs. He used the responses to compile a register of available area subs. In 2010, Swanson estimated 80-85 subcontractors contacted his company. By 2013, that number dropped to under 35. When he put out the call in 2017 for subcontractors, zero.
Almost any remodeler who relies on subs has to deal with the labor shortage. Managers today need to formulate plans for attracting and retaining subcontractor crews. Here are five strategies that work.
1. Pay More
Maggio Roofing, near Washington, D.C., normally installs with its own employee roofers, but when the market got wildly busy last year, it needed subcontractor crews. Managers soon discovered it was necessary to pay more than the going rate—a lot more. Owner Scott Siegal reports inviting four subs to a jobsite to discuss working for his company, which often takes on complicated projects. “They looked at the job and said ‘no,’” he says. “Ours are not in-and-out roofs. Why would they want that when they can do the easy stuff?”
Siegal says he was able to hire subs by paying 30% more than the going rate. Roofing contractors in other parts of the country are similarly willing to pay anywhere from 10-30% more to get crews.
“You’re not going to find a sub for the price you used to,” says Kevin Phillips, of Full Service Roofing & Remodeling in Illinois.
2. Make the Job Clear and Easy
Sometimes money alone won’t do it, so Phillips tries to help his trade partners become more efficient whenever possible.
“We’re moving the dumpster closer to the building,” he says. “And for steep jobs, we’ll have shingles delivered onto the roof by boom so they don’t have to carry up bundles.”
Since subs typically have other jobs lined up after a current project, it’s important to minimize delays. PMs at Maggio work with crews to ensure the job’s installed to spec, and also step in to handle elements that can slow a crew down (e.g., flashing around vents and chimneys).
Another area that can cause ill will and slippage is initial bids that are too vague.
“I’ve heard from a number of guys that they’re always having to split the difference [with subs] on various items where it’s not clear who is responsible,” said veteran builder and author David Gerstel, on a recent episode of Building Optimal podcast.
To solve this, Gerstel recommends something he calls an included/not included form. He was introduced to it by a trade partner, and liked the idea so much he created his own version.
“Maybe you’re having problems with items falling between you and the sub, or between subs, let’s say a flashing detail that nobody wants to take responsibility for,” Gerstel says. “These forms really help.”
The document basically says, “Our bid is based on the following plans and specifications for the above named project. Our bid includes all work and costs regularly, but not necessarily, covered by our trade, excepting items circled below.” It then indicates exactly what is not included.
3. Stay Organized
Companies that don’t have the right materials at the right time on the jobsite can pay a big price.
Having a crew tear the roof off only to find new shingles have yet to be delivered, for example, leaves installers with little choice but to move on and return when there’s an opening in their schedule.
Companies that once required crews to furnish materials might now have those materials waiting onsite. “We do most of the back-end stuff,” says Brian Diamond, owner of Quality Home Exteriors, in Omaha, Neb. “All the materials are ordered, and the job is scheduled on their calendar. Everything’s there for them.”
But make sure it’s the product you specified: Crews get antsy, says Michael Damora, vice president of sales and marketing for K&B Home Remodelers, in New Jersey, and “they’re going to install whatever shows up on that jobsite, or whatever is in the back of the truck.”
Even with careful planning and coordination there will be shortages—a bundle of shingles or a last length of ridge vent—that can prevent a job from being finished. Make contingencies for when that happens.
“We’ve had a dedicated runner for the past couple years,” Swanson says. “If we’re short materials, he’ll go out and get it. We work with them to identify things that are missing so they can keep moving.”
4. Treat Subs with Respect
Subcontractors are valuable craftsmen and it’s important to treat them well. “I like to pop up at the jobsite and bring pizza,” says Kristine Johnson, production manager at Quality Home Exteriors, which installs entirely with trusted subs.
But most of all, respect means honoring their time and financial needs.
5. Provide Steady Work
A steady supply of work also plays an essential role in creating loyalty. Many roofing companies hibernate for the winter, leaving subs twiddling their thumbs.
For Maggio Roofing, there’s a steady stream of jobs, and that has been a major selling point when the company recruits subcontractor crews. They never stop selling and only stop installing in the face of weather difficulties that make roofing installation impractical.
Swanson agrees. “Local crews know we’re going to have work, and that they’ll be treated with respect,” Swanson says. “We’re not going to lose them if someone offers them two dollars a square more. We’ll work with them to make sure they’re fairly compensated.”