Construction Industry, No Recovery Here

Dominic Schmidt took a puff of his waning cigar and slowly shook his head as his phone rang yet again.

"No... sorry, man. Okay... take care." Though sunglasses obscured Schmidt's eyes, the pause and slight frown said it all.

"That was another one, I get six or seven of these a day now [even on weekends], all looking for work—but there's just nothing," said Schmidt. "I'm lucky that I have a job, and can keep these guys employed."

On a temperate day in March, Schmidt and his crew were working at the Oxnard airport on a project for their employer, construction firm Nye and Nelson. Nearly finished with their four-month job installing new drainage and pavement, the workers were completing the final grate. Soon it will be sealed with cement and tarred to match the pristine new grounds of the portion of the airstrip that is generally a loading zone for private jets and helicopters.

A normal day at work? Luckily for this crew of five, it is. They are, however, the exception.

Construction has taken a huge hit in California, and Ventura County is hurting along with the rest of the state.

In 2009, the industry shed nearly 2000 jobs in Ventura County alone, according to the most recent data from the California Employment Development Department. Schmidt estimates that at his union, Local 12 of The International Union of Operating Engineers, 400 of the 500 members are currently unemployed.

Long-term public works projects, standard fare for Nye and Nelson, are job savers—even though they employ less than half the crew they had in recent years.

A project like this one would normally utilize about 15 workers, depending on the task of the day, said Schmidt. That would include journeyman-level tradesmen (who are well paid at $40-$45 dollars an hour) and laborers. Because of the lack of work, only the employees with the highest standing in the company are called to the site. That means workers who would generally be supervisors are also carrying out unskilled labor jobs, like asphalt paving, which would usually be performed by lower-wage workers.

Schmidt says business has been slowing for about a year and a half. But more recently the cuts have become drastic.

"Six months ago, we had three crews of six or eight guys—sometimes more, depending on the task—working full time," said Schmidt.

Strains on city, county and state budgets have resulted in fewer projects, said Schmidt. Coupled with the decline of the private construction industry, bidding for public works has turned into war.

Tom Rooney, construction manager for the Ventura County Department of Airports, said he used to receive an average of six bids for a project. Now, it is normal to get 18 to 20 bids. And while this has driven down the price of construction, it means businesses are making much less money while more people go without work, said Rooney.

But, Schmidt is not surprised. He considers this recession a kind of "culling of the herd."

"Weak companies don't survive these types of times," said Schmidt. "I've actually seen it now three times in 35 years, so it's a normal cycle that we go through."

Schmidt says he was hit pretty hard in the early nineties. And though he is faring much better this time around, he sees the direct effects of the economic crisis in people he used to employ.

Alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and depression are just some of the problems he has encountered with former co-workers who are now unemployed. And there are others who have just disappeared.

"Some of them are just lost in space. They are gone. We don't know where they are. They've lost their phone numbers, their houses. I'm sure their family life is a mess," said Schmidt.

With the construction industry as bad as it is, Ventura County is not likely to see significant improvement anytime soon. Some economic forecasters predict the industry will not return to pre-recession levels until 2015.

"If you ask some of my friends, they say it can't get any worse... But it can always get worse, it can get a lot worse," said Schmidt.

And though Schmidt says this recession didn't take him by surprise, he is very concerned. His advice to friends—do whatever it takes.

"They're going to have to swallow their pride a bit and just go ahead and do what they have to do," said Schmidt. "If it's pumping gas or flipping burgers, it doesn't matter. Keep your house. Keep your family."

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