Pity the poor subcontractor. He’s always been seen as “the low man on the org chart,” as one roofer notes. He’ll be there when you need him, and if he isn’t, there are always plenty more to go around.
Maybe that was true in the old days, but a lot has changed. Workers to install roofing, siding, or windows are aging out like the rest of the trades, and fewer young people are replacing them. And with the immigration issues currently on trend in the U.S., hiring from elsewhere isn't a reliable option.
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 took the information of those who contacted him and compiled a register of available area subs. In 2010 Swanson estimated 80-85 subcontractors contacted his company, looking for installation work. By 2013, when he reached out again, that number dropped to 30-35. When he put out the call in 2017 for subcontractors, “not one called us.”
Add to this the wild and wooly storms that have pounded the Midwest, East Coast, and Florida in the last decade, draining subcontracted labor from other parts of the country. One Twin Cities contractor recently merged with a far larger operation due to its difficulty in finding installation crews. When a huge hailstorm hit the area, that larger company found its four or five regular subcontractor teams had seemingly vanished, taking on work generated by the storm.
Tracy Dahlin, owner of Iron River Construction, remembers that storm, too. When it hit, what struck Dahlin was the lack of roofers. "Never in almost 20 years have we ever lacked for roofers," she says. "Usually [after a big storm] my phone starts ringing off the hook with guys who came up and want to work.” She attributes the lack of interest to a particularly tough hurricane season, which kept roving roofing crews busy elsewhere.
The phenomenon is happening across the country. When big storms have happened in the South, Illinois roofer Kevin Phillips, of Full Service Roofing & Remodeling, has noticed foremen will take their subcontractor crews down to the hardest-hit places, staying sometimes for years.
Almost any exterior contracting company of any size using subcontractors to install its projects (a majority, especially in roofing) now has to confront and manage the issue of labor availability. Unless the company is willing to upend its business model and use employee installers—neither a small nor inexpensive task—managers are compelled to formulate a strategy for attracting and retaining subcontractor crews. First on their wishlist? Money, of course.
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 went looking and soon discovered it was necessary to pay more than the going rate—a lot more. Owner Scott Siegal reports inviting four separate subcontractors to a jobsite to discuss working for his company, which often takes on complicated roofing projects. “They looked at the job and said no,” he says. “Ours are not in-and-out roofs. Why would they want to do that when they can do the easy stuff?”
Siegal says he was able to hire subs by paying 30% more than the going rate. Other roofing contractors in other parts of the country are similarly willing to pay anywhere from 5-10% more to as much as a third more to get the crews they need to install jobs they’ve already sold. “You’re not going to find a sub for the price you used to,” Phillips says, especially if you want the skilled and dedicated subcontractor crews that general contracting companies prize. “They’re the ones creating the project. Without them, all you’ve got is a palette of metal or shingles.”
What Can We Do To Help?
But sometimes money alone won’t do it. What subcontractors do is not only the most essential part of the job, it’s also the hardest and most strenuous. Production managers and project managers responsible for hiring subcontractors and overseeing work on multiple jobs are often doing whatever they can to make it easier for subs to take and execute a job.
Treating subs as the highly valued craftsmen they are is where it starts. “I like to pop up at the jobsite and bring pizza,” says Kristine Johnson, production manager at Quality Home Exteriors, in Omaha, Neb., which installs entirely with trusted and vetted subs.
Companies have tweaked their production processes to accommodate the frenzied warm-weather schedules of subs. Full Service Roofing, for instance, does several things to set subcontractors up for success. “We’re moving the dumpster closer to the building,” Phillips says. “And if it’s a steep job, we’ll have the shingles delivered onto the roof by boom to avoid them having to carry up bundles.”
Since subcontractors typically have multiple jobs lined up after the one they’re currently on, it’s important to minimize any delays. Project managers at Maggio Roofing will not only work with crews to ensure that the job’s installed to spec and no short-cuts taken, but step in to handle elements that can slow a crew down—flashing around vents and chimneys, for instance.
Companies too disorganized to have the right materials in the right quantity can pay the price of a haphazard install, or desertion. Having a crew tear the roof off only to find that new shingles have yet to be delivered, for example, leaves installers with little choice but to move on to their next job and return when there’s an opening in the schedule.
Now, companies that once required crews to furnish materials might now have those materials waiting on the jobsite. “We do most of the back end stuff," says Brian Diamond, owner of Quality Home Exteriors. "All the materials are ordered, and the job is scheduled and electronically listed on their calendar. At some companies they have to pay for their materials. Our suppliers go out and measure it, I order it. 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 and sometimes—a bundle of shingles or a last length of ridge vent—that can prevent a job from being finished. “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."
More Than A One-Time Deal
A steady supply of work also plays an essential role in creating loyalty. “Subs need to keep busy,” Phillips says. Many roofing companies hibernate for the winter, leaving subs twiddling their thumbs. But cold weather, Diamond and others say, is the best time for aggressive recruiting. “We get them into the database,” he says, “so that when the time comes, they’re there.”
For Maggio Roofing, there is a steady stream of jobs waiting that have been a major selling point when the company recruits subcontractor crews. D.C. had record rainfall in 2018, and the company never stops selling. They only stop installing in the face of physical difficulties that make roofing installation impractical for the day—e.g., rain, high winds, low temps.
Crews want reassurance that the job is more than a one-time deal. "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.”