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Florida's construction industry still shrinking, but some workers cling to hope

Florida's bustling construction industry lured Sam Radowick from Michigan eight years ago.

The pay was good. The work, plentiful.

By November 2006, however, home building in his adopted state began slumping. Radowick's boss — like many building contractors — kept his I-can-fix-it optimism even as layoffs began.

"Everyone thought it was temporary," Radowick said. "After all, this is Florida."

Over the next five years, that "temporary" downturn never let up.

The Great Recession has slashed Florida's 700,000-worker construction industry in half. That's well known.

But here's the kicker: The industry is still shrinking. Other than government, which is deep in budget-cutting mode, construction remains the biggest job-loser on a near-monthly basis.

In August, construction was down another 1,900 jobs over the month, reaching its lowest point since the federal government began tracking state data in 1990. Manufacturing is now a bigger slice of Florida's economy than once-mighty construction. And construction employment might not hit bottom until 2012, some economists predict.

The state's masonry industry alone has dropped from 800-plus contractors to fewer than 200. One Tampa mason recently shut down his business, sold his equipment and moved to Tennessee. He had grown weary of dipping into his retirement money to prop up his company, said Pat McLaughlin, executive director of the Masonry Association of Florida.

"They've held on, held on, held on until now," he said.

The radical contraction has forced much of Florida's massive construction army to redeploy. They do odd jobs for friends and neighbors, mow lawns and drive trucks. They remodel and expand houses for people shackled to their homes by underwater mortgages.

Thousands more have left the state, sometimes chasing mere rumors of work elsewhere.

Fifty-year-old Radowick stayed. And hoped — and paid a heavy price on the road to reconstructing his life.

'Grapes of Wrath'

Born in the Detroit area, Radowick grew up without electricity. No TV. His mom, a German immigrant who raised seven kids by herself, refused to take handouts.

It wasn't until he was older that he realized "we were exceedingly poor." And it didn't matter.

He believes it's that disposition that led him into construction.

"This industry has always attracted the type of person with a can-do attitude," he said. "It makes you a problem-solver."

Radowick always sensed an unspoken loyalty among home builders and the crews who worked for them. The owners had been there. They had worked their way up. And they didn't want to lay off guys that had worked for them for 20 years.

Maybe that's why, he surmises, so many builders waited to pare down until it was too late, and they were forced out of business. Nationally, the construction industry gradually contracted from 7 million to 5 million. But Florida was the epicenter of the shakeout.

At first, Radowick's boss repeatedly cut back on his hours. Then he changed his job from estimating construction costs for would-be clients to what the company needed most: sales.

Toward the end, he was cold-calling general contractors to ask if they needed subs. If he spotted a sign saying, "Future Home of the Fill-in-the-blank Church," he would jot the number down and call.

By the fall of 2007, half of the 40-person firm had already been laid off. Radowick wasn't bitter when his own number came up. "The boss realized he was giving me a lot of paychecks, and there was nothing there. It was just a dead horse."

Suddenly self-employed, Radowick scraped together what small jobs he could "to keep gas in the truck and food on the table. But that was it."

Things turned ugly quickly. McLaughlin of the masonry association recalled driving through Port St. Lucie one day and spotting a general contractor's Ford F-250 truck with a Domino's Pizza sign on top. "I thought, 'Uh-oh, this is going to be bad when a contractor is out delivering pizza."

Visiting pawnshops, Radowick noticed more tools appearing on the shelves from fellow, idled workers. He could not fathom parting with his own. That would be like a surgeon telling a patient to bring his own scalpel. Soon, some pawnshops stopped accepting tools. No one was buying them.

Some friends moved to Nevada or Wyoming in search of the next big building boom.

"It's like in the Great Depression where they heard they were hiring in Illinois for apple pickers. It's a Grapes of Wrath kind of thing."

Radowick took his chances on Florida.

Google of construction

For three years, Radowick grabbed work where he could find it.

He regretted his boss hadn't cut him loose six months earlier when he might have landed something. Now all his contacts were coming up dry.

No one was building houses or strip malls any more. Even fewer were putting up office buildings.

A couple of his friends got maintenance jobs at area schools. Others turned to health care, and one buddy joined his wife selling Avon. It was part of a much broader industry defection. Construction unemployment nationally fell from a high of 25 percent to about 13 percent even though job creation didn't pick up. In other words, hundreds of thousands of former construction workers left the industry.

Radowick didn't join the exodus. His heart was still in construction.

But even the scattered work he picked up didn't pay like it used to. Over the past five years, average weekly wages for construction workers in Florida have slumped from $762 to $753 even though the cost of living has gone up.

Radowick briefly worked for a couple of banks fixing up repossessed homes, but the pay barely covered expenses. He boarded up two abandoned homes for the city of Tampa. The jobs, some tied to federal stimulus dollars, typically lasted a few days, a couple of weeks at best. Two or three weeks of frustration followed.

"You don't know when the next paycheck is coming," he said. "But you knew when the next bill was coming in."

Like many, he concluded the $130 billion in federal stimulus earmarked for construction over three years was just too small to stop the hemorrhaging.

"That doesn't compensate for the fact that construction had gone from a $1.2 trillion to an $800 billion industry," said Brian Turmail of the Associated General Contractors of America. "There's no doubt … there are companies around today that would not be if not for the stimulus. But the overall impact was muted by the fact the rest of the industry was crumbling."

On occasion, Radowick's friends who were still working sought his help in estimating costs for remodeling apartments or home additions. He would charge them $25 to $200 to come up with some numbers.

"I was like the Google of the construction industry," he said. "If they had a fast question, they called up Sam to ask the information."

It was spotty work.

In the meantime, he lost his three-story home in St. Petersburg's Tropical Shores neighborhood and divorced his wife of seven years, a split that he links directly to economic stress. His wife was the only loss that really mattered to him. "My heart still skips a beat when I see her," he says.

He moved into a small apartment in downtown St. Petersburg, working off about half of the rent by fixing up the place.

Two things he never lost, he said, were his spirit and his joy.

"Abraham Lincoln said that everyone is as happy as they decide to be. Whether you're rich or poor, you're going to be happy or miserable based on what you decide you're going to be. So I lost the house, I'll build another one. I have confidence in my hands."

No longer afraid

Radowick finally caught a break seven months ago while standing in line at WorkNet Pinellas, one of the state's workforce boards charged with re-training and placing the jobless.

He joked that he had picked the wrong line of work. A lady standing behind him piped up that she, too, was in construction. She mentioned a new federal grant for training workers to weatherize homes.

Under the three-year U.S. Department of Energy program, WorkNet is prepping workers to insulate and weather-proof up to 19,000 homes in Pinellas County for low-income families. The program is billed as a way to give older homes the dual benefit of cleaner air and lower energy costs.

Radowick took back-to-back courses, one to become a weatherization installer and another to be an auditor overseeing others' work. He had found not only a job but also a cause to believe in.

The bulk of the work is residential and tied to federal funding. So what happens when the federal grant propping up the program runs out? Will private industry support weatherization enough to keep it going? Will Radowick and the others employed through the program lose their jobs, perpetuating the construction industry's downward spiral?

Radowick isn't worried. Not after what he has already been through. He doesn't know if he's even capable of worrying any more.

"That fear factor has already run its course," he said. "How long can you be afraid?"

Jeff Harrington can be reached at harrington@sptimes.com.

Florida's construction industry still shrinking, but some workers cling to hope 10/18/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 19, 2011 1:22pm]
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