The Perfect Storm - Part 8

Walk A Mile In My Muddy Boots

An Objective Look At Framing Labor Dynamics

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Perspective is a curious thing. So often we resist venturing into the world of others for fear that what we might learn will taint our personal viewpoint, possibly shaking our own internal decision-making mechanism. Shortly after I joined Contract Lumber (14 years ago) I introduced an employee program that I thought would help create an environment of understanding and appreciation within all the various roles and tasks that each person played in producing the turnkey product that we bring to market. I entitled it Walk A Mile In My Muddy Boots. I simply hoped that by each person spending time shadowing co-workers in their daily efforts that we might somehow improve productivity and efficiency as well as enhance teamwork throughout our organization because we knew what it was like to perform that internal customer’s daily tasks.  I wish I could tell you that the program was a huge success and it completely changed the culture of the company. The reality is that I can count on one hand how many people actually took the time and energy to accept the challenge of stepping outside of the box and learning what it was like to spend a day in some one else's boots. While disappointed, what the experience really taught me was that most people are very apprehensive to step outside of their own little cocoon and broaden their perspectives. Its like they don’t want their own attitudes, activities and decisions clouded by empathy. Ironically, I feel our industry has taken a strikingly similar approach towards framing contractors over the last decade and I think we could all benefit if we walk a mile in their muddy boots. 

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Framing carpentry is tough, dangerous work. It is physically demanding and involves working long hours in the extreme elements year round. Wages for framing carpenters typically range toward the bottom of what most consider a reasonable wage scale. Framing work itself has become even more challenging in the last decade as structures become larger and more complex and construction details grow more intricate. The organization of framing companies and the makeup of crews has become quite multifarious as well. It is nearly unheard of to find framing companies that have a large staff of framing carpenters on payroll. You are much more likely to find framing operations utilizing sub-contractors to perform the work. A framing company may have a few employees that manage or supervise their subcontractors work or they may operate as a labor broker with no employees and no management or supervision of subcontractor crews. The market has become very murky with multi-tiered layers of subs that blur the legal limits of worker status — employee or independent contractor? The topic of the proper classification of employees would take an article all in itself (and I may oblige at a later date), however, for the purposes of this installment of The Perfect Storm, lets all agree that the structure of framing crews in general is convoluted.

Now that we have established the obvious, lets examine the basic expense structure that framing contractors are responsible for and how that has changed in recent years. First lets tackle the mundane expenses of running a business and having employees. They include liability insurance, workers compensation, medical coverage, and if lucky, a retirement benefit. These expenses have remained somewhat static with the exception of medical which continues to significantly burden employers and employees alike with price escalation and coverage reductions. All these costs are basic expenses for operating a legitimate business and are a requirement that most builders and general contractors and labor providers demand from their subs. 

One of the most hard hitting cost increases that many framing contractors have incurred is the cost of diesel fuel. The two most common uses include generators and rough terrain equipment. Obviously, everyone can appreciate the burden higher fuel costs have made on their life. We are all hit with it several times a week when we fill up our own personal vehicles. I, for one, willingly drive 20 miles out of the way to save ten cents per gallon of gas, on principle. But, for a framing contractor operating several pieces of equipment and generators, diesel costs can run hundreds of dollars a day. One framer I talked with said that he figures that diesel costs him, on average, $45 per framed apartment unit. That equates to over $10,000 on a 240 unit apartment project. Of course, all framing employees have had to absorb the added costs of increased transportation, just like you and I.

Construction fasteners and hardware requirements have also undergone tremendous changes over the years and represent a significant burden to the framing contractor, both in material costs and installation time. The complexity of shear values, tensile strength, and the corrosive ability and compatibility with the materials all come into play. Even the basics of any construction project, nails and screws, has become an elaborate decision trying to mesh the framers pneumatic nailers with the right type of collated strips or coil packs to fulfill the specified angle, depth, and spacing requirements that are, or possibly are not, communicated on the plans. The sheer volume of fasteners on a project has increased due to altered spacing requirements called out by manufacturers, code officials, engineers and other specifiers. I can remember when you nailed sheeting 12 inches on center. Now, you may have to have a fastener every 2-3 inches depending on the shear condition. It would not be uncommon for a medium sized multi-residential project to have a fastener budget from between $50,000-$70,000.  Then, comes connection hardware requirements. Holddowns, tension ties, straps, hangers, anchors, crush plates, clips, brackets, through-bolts, rods, braces, tie-downs...is there any wonder that there can be confusion and miscommunication on the jobsite. And, any one of these pieces of hardware may take 40 fasteners to install adding additional money and time to the framer.  Another monumental issue framers face is clarity and detail of the blueprints. Contradictions are common place.  On larger projects plans are developed over a period of time, often as long as a year. Through the progression owners are asking GC’s for pricing at various stages. It becomes a tedious process for everyone trying to digest the added details and changes and come up with accurate numbers to protect their customer and themselves. Ironically, some of the last pages drawn are the structural details. I have seen the inclusion of three pages of structural details add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of a project due to excessive engineering. It can be a deal-breaker if you price it correctly or a business-buster if you don’t.  

A subcontractor’s jobsite tool and equipment costs are another area that many builders and general contractors fail to fully appreciate. The costs for heavy equipment like rough terrain forklifts and lulls can be incredibly expensive. For instance, a 6,000 pound forklift costs over $124,000 to purchase outright and a 54’ Lull is $190,000. Most framing companies find it too expensive to purchase and opt for renting heavy equipment, especially since their equipment needs can change from project to project and hulling equipment to and from jobsites can also add tremendous expense. To rent a 6,000 pound forklift for a month is around $2,200 and the monthly rental for a 54’ Lull is $3,100.  Crane rental is also part of the framing subs typical responsibilities and ranges, depending on the size, from $500 - 1,800 per day. Other tools including pneumatic guns, hoses, extension cords, ladders, smaller lifts, scaffolding, aluminum planks and the like, have all increased in cost and represent a considerable investment for a framing subcontractor and his crew. 

Nothing has had a more significant impact on framing subcontractors in recent years than the area of safety. More stringent safety regulations and their enforcement influence both a framers pocketbook and their productivity. First of all, there is the additional equipment costs associated with outfitting each worker with OSHA approved gear. These costs include the basic, relatively inexpensive personal protective equipment like hardhats and safety goggles, first aid kits, fire extinguishers, undamaged electrical cords, gloves and the proper footwear. But, costs escalate quickly when full-body harnesses, deceleration devices, lanyards and anchoring mechanism are required. Fall protection arrest systems can run upward of $500 per person. Another underappreciated expense is the guardrail requirements that are now mandated for openings and stairs. The material and labor to install these safety devices are both expensive and time consuming.  It becomes extremely difficult to keep up with the constantly changing standards and requirements that OSHA introduces and the fines can be stifling. No one is complaining about efforts to make our jobsites and construction workers safer. But, recognize that there is a cost for doing so and unfortunately, the entity feeling the brunt of these cost increases (and the least likely to be able to afford them) are framing contractors.

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We must strive to keep common sense in the equation when considering a safety plan to keep everyone safe.  Sometimes, over-the-top interpretations and enforcement seem to abandon logic often turning basic tasks into time consuming overreactions that can add thousands to a sub’s cost. Case in point, we were asked by a general contractor to assist in securing the exterior doors on a large student housing project. Being that we had personnel already on site we agreed to install a simple deadbolt and passage lock set on approximately 125 exterior doors that swung into residential units on multi-story buildings. At no time would our installers not be standing on a solid floor inside of the structure and would certainly not be hanging out of any openings. It was an installation that should have taken no more than 10 minutes per opening and we offered up a price accordingly, $700. But, due to OSHA fall protection interpretation by the superintendent and safety director, our ten minute task turned into nearly an hour per opening. Our personnel were required to wear a safety harness and lanyard attached to a D-Link anchor secured by 36 lag screws into the top of a floor joist. The floor already had gypcrete installed so that had to be chipped away to reveal the top cord of the I-Joist per secure fastening requirements. Each opening required the same redundant procedure and drove the cost to over $3,500. We were forced to eat the additional costs because it was deemed we should have been aware of safety regulations required for the procedure. Unfortunately, this is just one example of many, many “hidden gems” that can catch a subcontractor by surprise and most generally, the burden to conform falls upon the sub. Common sense and pocketbooks be dammed, in the name of jobsite safety. 

However, it’s not always about time and money for carpenters. During research for this piece I was interviewing a large framing contractor and he had a very interesting observation. The framer, who wished to remain anonymous, contends that while money is certainly a critical obstacle to the success of framers he identified a concern that he considers even more distressing. “It’s more than just money, there is no respect. Literally, there is absolutely no respect. I don’t know who in their right mind would want to frame today. It’s not just because of money that we are in this predicament, it’s about respect. For some reason, a lot of people in this industry don’t think they should treat framers with any common decency. Shoot, for the money a framer makes you could work at Lowes or Home Depot. At least there people are nice to you.” 

I am having a tough time getting that comment out of my mind. I realize it is a very broad statement and certainly not everyone treats subcontractors with contempt. However, I think there is an unquestionable sense of truth to his concern and that probably speaks as much to us as an industry and even deeper, as a society. We would all do well to take a step back and dedicate ourselves to treating people with more respect—treat people more like we would like to be treated. That’s my public service announcement for this installment of The Perfect Storm. 

In conclusion, improved perspective can be an enlightening experience, if you let it. Hopefully, walking a mile in the framers muddy boots has proved revealing. Then, when you slip your own boots back on you’ll have a better appreciation of exactly what goes into that framing number you just received on your latest project. Yep, I know it seems a little high but there is so much that goes into that number. So many formally hidden expenses that you can now empathize with. And just maybe, we can all help this perfect storm blow over a little sooner by making a conscience effort within our own organizations to promote treating framers (and all subcontractors) with a little more respect. It very well may restore some esteem back into framing and possibly even help to attract some much needed young candidates into the framing profession. 

Stay tuned for our final installment of The Perfect Storm where we recap the series and get an update on the storms direction, intensity and forecast. As always, we'd love to hear your part of the story in the comments below!