Up Front: Then and Now
Today, it seems to be about bodies-just throw more bodies at the project.
I was at a friend’s home being remodeled in an exclusive area of Pasadena, Calif. Plasterers, drywall hangers and finishers were everywhere. It was a sight to behold, and what a mess. My friend noticed I was annoyed and asked me what was wrong.
“Nothing and everything,” I said.
Later at dinner, after being pressed by family and friends, I said the lack of supervision, lack of construction knowledge and the waste of time and money is all too common in construction. My first question was, why are all these people working on a Sunday? I explained that everything on site was being done with no sequence, structure or organization and was simply poor planning. Whether from a lack of knowledge or purposeful, there was no efficiency. I explained it is also hard to be efficient when you are working on top of each other with no clear direction. “Wouldn’t this cost me extra money?” the owner asked. Yes and no, I answered.
“These guys are likely piece workers, and only get paid for what is completed.”
She was relieved and then asked why would they work like this, and wouldn’t they want to be more efficient? I replied they probably don’t know any other way or they have no choice.
She asked what would be different in the days when I was working in the field. I thought it was a good question and answered thoughtfully. A subcontractor with skilled and efficient tradesmen would walk the job and hold his ground. He notifies the general contractor of any areas not ready for production and will not send crews until it is ready with enough work lined out to keep a crew productive and efficient. When the job is ready, they would send only the hangers (two skilled hangers would be able to hang a home in a single day). The tapers follow the next day, even if the journeymen cost more per hour, the production and efficiency would more than make up for the loss in production. In addition, skilled workers unimpeded by obstacles and stoppages produce better quality and have fewer injuries. That is what professionals do.
“Why is it not like that today?” she asked. I explained too many general contractors do not really know or appreciate construction as a trade. They have a schedule to keep. They force subcontractors to sign their rights away and shift the risk. The general knows computer programs and schedule charts, not construction. The all-too-common answer to this lack of planning and knowledge is throwing more bodies at the problem. We call it “trade stacking.” This is the big drawback to having work done on the lowest piece-work rate, the developers get lazy and construction efficiency just gets worse and worse over time.
Subcontractors who are knowledgeable about production and efficiency are often forced to sign a contract that forces them to “man” the job or else. I lived this transformation from being appreciated as a subcontractor for his knowledge and supervisory skills to becoming nothing more than a basic labor broker. I am not alone: I know there are many talented trade supervisors out there who are pushed into similar situations where they have no input or no one listens to them. Poor supervisors do not care about facts such as, “the doors are not in,” “ductwork is missing,” “production will be nil,” or “just give me more bodies.”
To prove the point that skilled tradespeople are not more expensive in the long run, consider tract homes in southern California that were done in the mid-1970s, when plastering production was king. The workforce was 90 percent union and well paid. Today, that same worker is low paid and often gets no benefits; this would lead one to believe installed prices must be significantly lower today. But are they? Are tract homes in Southern California today cheaper than they were in the ’70s?
Why are wages, even taking into account inflation, much less today? Loss of productivity and efficiency are very key reasons. It does not happen overnight but it does happen. The bad news is that even with highly skilled productive workers on a poorly run job site, it will not result in lower installed costs. The supervisory culture from general contractors will have to change, too.
I doubt that the days of skilled and efficient tradesman being honored on the site will return in my lifetime but we should try at least to keep our industry from sliding deeper into the abyss of “the reality show” type mentality. I am concerned the skilled tradesman and knowledgeable subcontractor will hold no value.