Why aren't young people interested in roofing?

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Henry Staggs, RRO

May 14th, 2020

The shortage of skilled labor


Writing this article was pretty tough for me. The labor shortage is a dynamic issue. It's hard to nail it down to any particular thing. There are many factors that contribute to the problem. I'll try to touch on the main ones as best I know-how. Keep in mind that I love my industry. I think roofers are the most extraordinary people on earth. If it seems like my criticisms from time to time are harsh it's all coming from and good place. If you know me you know I am trying to do my part to make our industry better, stronger, and more professional.

Why?

Roofers are aging out of the industry, getting older and retiring. Some of us are in our late 40s and even into our 50s. We've worked hard all of our lives, and it's time to climb down and relax. But what happens when the experienced guys hang up their tool belts? Is anyone in line to replace them?
 
Historically, younger people would be taking their place on the roof. But now Young people aren't coming in at a rate that will replace all the older guys. Leaving large gaps in the skilled labor force.
Younger people are not interested in being roofers, so we are told. There is some truth to that, but the industry is not reaching out to them with the right message either. If we want the youth to take an interest. We need to give them something to be interested in.
I was lucky to get an invitation to speak to the construction technology class at the East Valley Institute of Technology. At first, they weren't interested. But after some questions and answers, they become more intrigued. Especially after a roofing company came and did some demonstrations. They became very interested. And started asking questions about how to get into the industry. With the right message, they are interested. 
Immigration policies current and past have a substantial impact on the workforce. It's not a secret that roofing contractors like using immigrants for labor. Legal or not, they work hard and for less money. Why pay one guy more than another to do the same job? As a business person, the bottom line is the bottom line. This part of the problem. Wages have not risen properly and as a result, part of the message is "you won't make much money." I am not at all opposed to immigration, but if it's driving wages down that is a problem. 

The Effect

Over the years, even in my lifetime. There seems to be a decline in the skill level of the guys on the roof. I need to remind you that I love roofers. But as a consultant, quality assurance observer, and an installer for decades. I see some low standards of workmanship on the roof these days. Stuff that would have gotten a guy fired 20 years ago is now acceptable. It's not the worker's fault, though, the Contractor should invest more in their training. 
This means there are more under-skilled and under-trained workers on the roof. The result is a lower standard of workmanship. Recently I asked a superintendent what type of coating he was using. He said, "White coating oh and base coating too," then he asked the guy spraying it "is this that acrylic stuff"? This was the guy who was in charge of quality control
The industry knows we are suffering from a lack of new skilled labor. Manufacturers are responding by developing "labor saver" systems. Such as single-ply and peel and stick roof systems. Most of the work is already done. The workers only need to follow the directions and lay it out. If the trend continues. Manufacturers will have to simplify the roof systems even more.

What about the unions

Arizona is a "right to work state," and while the Roofers Union is here. Most roofing contractors I know are not union roofing contractors. Even though the Union offers training. If a contractor is not part of the Union, how does the worker get it? I was personally working with the Arizona office of apprenticeship tiring to revive the Arizona apprenticeship program. My efforts, however, were shot down by the Union, who wanted to be the one in charge and by the Arizona Roofing Contractor's Association as well. Who said, "we tried, and the young people just aren't interested."  That brings me back to the point, I made about the industry not offering the youth any reason to come into the industry. My personal experience was that once the young people had a chance to get their hands on it, they were very interested. 

No matter how great the Union program is, and the union does have a pretty good program. It's not available to the majority of workers and offers nothing inviting to the youth. Unless we get out there and start meeting and talking with the youth face to face, they won't be interested in what we have to offer. The youth will see us only as a last resort job. 

I think I need to mention, too, that roofing is, in fact, a dangerous job. Before I start talking with the students, I ask, "What comes to mind when you think of roofing" the first thing I hear is, "It's dangerous" or "you can die." After that its "hot, dirty and hard work" All of that is true. So the question is, how can we dress that up and make it attractive?

The roofing industry has held the top spot for far too long for OSHA citationsdeaths due to falls, and being the most litigated part of the building. Think about that. The roof is about 5% of the entire building's budget (give or take) but the most litigated. Doesn't that all point to a severe lack of training on our parts as an industry? I challenge you to go around any neighborhood and find a crew working with fall protection. Even in new construction, you will have no problem finding roofers without fall protection. 

The fact is that if our workers were wearing fall protection, and the roofers weren't leaking. The problem of being the most OSHA cited trade and the most litigated part of the construction Who is responsible for that? We all are, and I am going to more about that as we go. 

The greed factor

Business is about making a profit; if the company is not making money, it will shut down. I have been a business owner of one kind of company or another for over 30 years. Money is the blood that keeps the business alive. So when does the greed factor come in and make the business of roofing more about money and less about roofing? 

My largest company had about 60 guys working on any given day. We did four or five re-roofs every day. Five days a week, and I am very proud to say we have no leaks. Except for a few skylights, but we solved the problem right away. In that company, we had a strict quality control process that worked, but if we started doing any more houses in a day. The system would begin to break down. Our choice was to make more money or let our quality control slip.

As a company grows, it needs more and more money. That cheaper labor starts to be more and more attractive. At the same time, it gets harder and harder to maintain a higher standard of quality. At some point, the company crosses that line, and the business becomes all about making money. The roofing part is almost a sideline issue As long as enough new jobs are coming in the door, a few bad jobs here and there are acceptable. 

More resources start going to sales and marketing for new jobs and fewer on training the workers. I don't say of this to put contractors down. Just pointing out that the larger a company is, the more money it needs to stay alive, and that can positively impact the workmanship on the roof.

The manufacturer has a role to play

Did you know that long before my time, manufacturers used to be more involved in the quality assurance of a roof?  The birth of roof consulting and quality assurance started with manufacturers requiring contractors to allow their work to be inspected by them if they wanted to buy their materials. Can you imagine that now? The manufacturer is telling a contractor today, "if you install our materials, we will inspect your work." 

Things are different now, of course. While manufacturers still certify contractors, they base that certification more on the financial health of the Contractor over the workmanship of the Contractor's crew. The only time you see a manufacture's inspector on the roof is at the end of a job. When the owner has purchased and some kind of warranty that puts the manufacturer on the hook. If not, well, you won't see them on the roof.

I have to say this: some of the worst work that I have seen was done by "certified" contractors. As I type this article, I am working with two homeowners who hired "certified" contractors and are now amid a Registry of Contractors complaint. 

What is happening now? 

Good news! Actions are being taken by the powers that be to help shift this challenge back in the right direction. I am proud to say that I am in the mix. I have been advocating for the industry for years. And finally, some great things are happening. Currently, I am sitting on a committee established by the National Roofing Contractor's Association and the National Center for Construction Research and Education. We are developing a specific roofing program for trade schools. No more will roofing only be a side note in the carpentry book. It will be its very own program, with the same certification and acceptance as any other trade school certificate program.

Doing this will help in a HUGE way to attract more youth to the industry. We need to reach out to them and let them know we want them. We need them. I am very excited about this program, and can barely stand waiting for it to be a reality. A few years ago, they ignored me, and now I am sitting on a committee of professionals working for the very thing I have wanted for a long time. And get this, yes I am bragging a little, the project manager at NCCER heading this up said: "Henry Staggs was beating us on this before we even decided to do it."

And that's not all either. The NRCA has been developing training and certification programs for a while now. They are working on more programs explicitly designed for the installer. They are working on ways to make it more affordable and accessible to the guys on the roof, and give them a sense of achievement. 

It gets even better, the NRCA's CEO is on a mission to convince specification writers to include "certified crew" in their specifications. Not certified Contractor, but rather a certified crew. Meaning that if the specifiers start doing that, the manufacturers will have to follow suit and start requiring certified employees in addition to good financial standing to be approved. 

The NRCA is not alone; there are already contractors and manufacturers working on their training and certification programs. Nations Roof, for example, has a program in place already,  and I also heard that Gorman roofing is also developing an entry-level training program. GAF also has several types of instructional and training programs, including their "Roofing Academy" program, designed for entry-level workers. And many more are starting to pop up around the industry.

The industry has recognized the problem and is stepping up. But it will take time, patience, and perseverance to see it through. I, for one, see the light at the end of the tunnel, but that might be because I am sitting upfront and have a good view of what is coming. 
 
What can you do 

Manufacturers; You can take a look back in the past and re-visit the way you certify a contractor. Start basing certifications on the Contractor's ability to attract and retain certified roofers. Financial strength is, no doubt, critical and says a lot about the Contractor. Come on now, we all know that a lot of no so good work is slipping through the cracks. You guys see it too, that's why so many of you are already working on your training programs.

Contractors: Yes, the company needs to make money, but how much money are you throwing away on callbacks and leaks? I would suggest you do the math and whatever amount of money you spent last year on callbacks. Invest that same amount into training your crews and empowering them to be a better craftsman. That means better training and better pay. I practice what I preached on this one when I was a contractor for nearly three decades. I can count the number of callbacks for leaks on the one hand. I know it can be done, but it's on you (the owners) to make it happen. Get out fo your office and see what your guys are doing in person. It will make a difference.

Owners: When all is said and done, you have all the power. This entire business is about making money. We can't lose sight of that critical fact. If you are accepting less then fantastic work, that is what the industry will keep giving you. But if you start demanding a nothing but the best in workmanship and employ quality assurance professionals to make sure you get it (like me). The industry will have to step up and give you what you want. Otherwise, we don't get paid.

Summary

If we provide our roofers with better training and recognize them for their skill and efforts, pay them better, and make sure they are always working safely. If specifiers start demanding certified crews and manufacturers start requiring certified employees for a contractor to be approved by them. And if the owners start demanding the best. The industry will change in ways that we can only imagine right now. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Things are going to be a lot better in the years to come. 

Henry Staggs, RRO
Roof Consultant and Roofing Industry Advocate
 

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