Twenty Years Down the Wall & Ceiling Road

Ulf Wolf

September 2008

Someone you’ve probably never heard of, Heraclitus, was the first person to realize that "The only constant is change.”

It was truish then, 2,500 years ago, and it is truish now.

AWCI member contractors agree in that, looking 20 years down the road, things will be quite different; and yet they disagree, seeing some things remaining just the way they are today.

The Issues
In interviewing contractors across the country about their view of our industry 20 years down the road, five key areas of concern surfaced:
• Work force and skills.
• Union survival.
• Tools and technology.
• Software intelligence.
• Green building codes.

We will visit these issues one by one.

Work Force and Skills
The current work force is growing older, and in 20 years a generation of skilled craftsmen will have retired, often with no one to apprentice and so pass their skills on to.

The new generation of high school graduates is, for the most part, college-bound, with a strong aversion to heavy lifting.

The eventual legal fate of the current population of immigrant labor is also of major concern.

Jeff McFarren of Green Mountain Drywall in Vermont puts it as succinctly as anyone: "The main change over the next 20 years is going to be the work force. It will be harder to find people who want to do work, as opposed to push paper around.

"We’ve asked ourselves this: What is going to happen 10 or 20 years from now when we can’t find qualified people today? Here in Vermont, it seems a lot of young people are moving out of state heading for the cities.”

Gabriel Castillo of Pillar Construction in New Hampshire is also concerned, though for a different reason: "For now, labor is cheap and remains cheap due to the immigrant population. However, if federal policy changes and the government begins to enforce illegal immigration laws, we will have a shortage, and cost of labor will certainly increase.

"What also concerns me is that trades, like plastering, are dying. Skills that once were passed on father-to-son. We try to make up for this by training our employees, but I think we’re fighting a losing battle.

"As a result, I see diminishing craftsmanship. Although, I have to say, the young guys pick up on new technologies right away.”

Lee Zaretzky of Ronsco, Inc. in New York has a different take: "I see the work force increasing, with more skilled, more knowledgeable and more safety conscious employees; all coming up through and trained by our unions.

"Safety will remain Job One, especially here in New York: cranes coming down on people’s heads tends to focus attention. Few people realize that 80 percent of all NYC accidents and fatalities take place at non-union worksites with untrained immigrant employees.”

Richard Riley of Simpson Commercial Contracting, Inc. in Alabama expresses this concern: "Twenty years from now, our main problem will be an unskilled labor force unable to install anything except rudimentary drywall.”

Gail Johnson of Acousti Engineering Company of Florida concurs: "I’ve been in this business for nearly four decades, and I have always thought that wherever I went, there would always be someone more skilled than I at doing what I’m doing. That, sadly, is no longer the case.

"Today, the kids would much rather move into office jobs, or professional careers: doctors, lawyers—white-collar jobs. They don’t want to work in construction unless they absolutely have to.

"Still, there are those who didn’t do all that well in school and who don’t want to go to college, but who still want to earn a decent living. We need to train them. These kids don’t want to work minimum wage at McDonald’s, and our trade is a great alternative.”

Matt Van Hekken of The Bouma Corporation in Michigan has similar concerns: "We have to train our younger kids, though it doesn’t seem our trades are as popular now as they once were. Also, over the next 20 years I see our immigrant labor force growing.”

Kim Sides of Sides Drywall in Alabama does not mince words on the subject: "The labor force is going to become worse and worse. Almost everyone graduating high school now goes on to college, and they are looking for, basically, desk jobs.

"To make up for this, I’d like to see the immigrant work force legalized, for one. Were the immigrant work force to be sent home, we would be in a world of hurt.”

Brian Anikstein of Cord Contracting in New York is less concerned: "We’re a union shop, and union training will help keep a good work force in place. They have good apprenticeship programs for mechanics, and I hope that this will still be the case 20 years from now.”

Dave DeHorn of Brady Company, Los Angeles, Inc. in California is not quite as comfortable: "Labor is going to be a problem, especially here in Southern California where most of our labor force is made up of immigrant labor who is finding it increasingly difficult to work here. Unless we have immigration reform, this will be a major issue for us.”

Steve Birkeland of Artcraft Wall & Ceiling Contractors in Minnesota is also concerned about labor skills: "I think we will continue to lose trade skills.

"I’ve seen skill levels diminish significantly during my time—and I’ve been at this for about 40 years now. I know for a fact that the plastering and stucco skilled labor isn’t nearly as good now as it was 20 years ago. Twenty years down that road, this skill may be lost.

"Kids out of school don’t want to do this type of work, although the union offers both training and good wages—our plasterers and stucco guys are making $41.50 an hour. But the work is physically demanding, and I guess that’s what scares them.”

Joseph Mirer of Clay Drywall, Inc. in New York is more optimistic: "I think we’ll have more skilled labor in 20 years. I think the unions will continue to recruit and train American-born labor. And those the unions don’t train, we can train. In fact, today, business is providing more training than schools do. And that, I’m sure, will continue.”

Charles Beatty III of Beatty Drywall Systems, Inc. in Delaware offers this view: "The union sector does not see labor as a big problem. In the non-union sector, however, 20 years from now, you’ll have immigrant labor in all non-technical trades—that is, everything except electrical, mechanical and plumbing.

"And don’t be surprised if in 20 years, even the technical trades will see a lot of second-generation immigrant labor: high school grads who go either into white-collar jobs or technical construction.”

Union Survival
Will the industry’s unions remain a viable proposition 20 years down the road? Will they still be around? Will they prosper? Opinions vary.

Mary Jane DePalma of DePalma Contracting, Inc. in New Jersey says, "I don’t think the unions will be as strong in the next 20 years.”

Ronsco’s Zaretzky, however, sees the unions surviving just fine.

Simpson Commercial Contracting’s Richard Riley takes a dimmer view: "I think unions will fall apart. I doubt they’ll even exist 20 years from now. I’ll say this though: Here in Alabama, after three decades of little or no union presence, we’ve also had three decades of no union-training, and that is bad news for us.”

The Bouma Corporation’s Van Hekken says, "I think the unions will be phasing out. At least here in Michigan, union popularity is falling with auto layoffs.”

Cord Contracting’s Anikstein says, "I hope that they will get stronger or at least remain the same, but it looks like every year or so they become a little weaker. More and more jobs are going non-union, and it’s a worrying trend.”

Tools and Technology
One thing that promises to change, simply because it’s never learned how to sit still, is technology. And in that regard we have a consensus: There will be technological changes.

But how fundamental will they be? Will they change the way we practice our craft, or will technology simply facilitate the way we currently do things?

Pillar Construction’s Castillo says, "I see improvement in efficiency, better tools, but we will still do pretty much the same thing.

"Perhaps there will be new ways of attaching drywall, time-saving clips, but I don’t see any new materials.”

Green Mountain Drywall’s Jeff McFarren says, "There are tools out there right now, like the bazooka, that allow you to finish off [drywall] faster. I’m sure that trend will continue. As for cutting the drywall, hanging it and screwing it down, I don’t see a change. We will still do that by hand 20 years from now.”

Ronsco’s Zaretzky adds, "Technology will never reach the point of replacing skilled labor. Somebody joked the other day about sheet-hanging robots, but I just don’t see it.”

Simpson Commercial Contracting’s Riley says, "I don’t think technology will make up for lost skills; what I do see, however, is lack of skill made up by non-skilled products.”

"You wouldn’t call it technology. It’s manufacturing. Like brick panels out of China; looks just like brick and all you do is screw it up. You no longer need a mason; you just need someone able to hang a level board.

"What I see is dummy-proof products that take fewer people, less skill and more manufacturing.”

Acousti Engineering’s Johnson says, "We’ve gone from water-level to laser, from hammer to screw-gun, but the bottom line remains: It will always take a man with hands and legs and feet and a brain to do what our industry does; that will not change in 100 years, much less 20.

"Our industry is not like a manufacturing plant where robots can replace people. And that is a good thing, because that will keep a lot of good people employed and able to support their families.”

Glenn Burley of Drywall Connections, Inc. in Colorado offers this view: "I am sure there are areas in our industry where technology can cut production time, as well as the number of people needed on the job. We’ll also have new products to work with, I’m sure, though I can’t tell you precisely what they’ll be.”

Sides says, "Technology changes will definitely impact our industry over the next 20 years, but it will never replace the skilled worker. Drywall still needs to be hung correctly by skilled hands.

"As for new tools or different ways of doing things, I can’t think of another way to do it. The biggest change in my time was going from nails to screws.”

Cord Contracting’s Anikstein says not much has changed: "I’m sure we’ll have some new tools, but remember that for the last 20 years the screw gun and the drywall have stayed the same. Yes, we have mold-resistant board now, which I see more and more, but aside from that I don’t see drywall change much.”

Brady Company’s DeHorn agrees: "We will still use screw guns to screw on drywall; I don’t see how else we’ll do it. But you never know, perhaps someone will develop an adhesive that you squirt on the stud to hold the drywall in place while you position it, and that sets in a minute or so.

"Also, they’ll develop lighter drywall. [One manufacturer] is working on something that may weigh 15 or 20 percent less. That’s good news. That would speed up production and give you fewer back injuries from lifting and holding sheets in place.”

Artcraft Wall & Ceiling Contractors’ Birkeland says, "We will see more advanced scaffolding systems and more uses of lasers.”

Beatty says he has "seen nail guns that would speed up drywall mounting, but they never really worked that well. We could not get a consistent depth on the nail.”

Gerald Roach of Forks Lath & Plaster, Inc. in North Dakota sees it this way: "We may very well have robots hanging [drywall] and taping it. That and lots more pre-fab components, like walls.

"Pre-fabrication, of course, is one way to make up for lost skill. I can even see EIFS applied to pre-fabricated outer walls, done by machines in the factory.

"And I expect to see ICF continue to grow. It just makes sense.”

Al Gardner of C & G Contracting, Inc. in Georgia says, "I see innovations that will improve both workability and ease of installation. Our trade will remain a skilled trade, but innovations such as pre-fabrication will make things easier on the installer.

"Also, 20 years from now we’ll have gotten away from screws, though I’m not sure how. Some sort of slip-bracket, perhaps even an adhesive.”

Software Intelligence
Around-the-corner software technologies promise, at least on paper, to deliver what Castillo of Pillar Construction immediately termed Intelligent Drawings (and wanted to copyright on the spot): a design drawing containing not only the usual measurements and relative positions but also full assembly detail—how many studs, how much insulation, how much drywall, as well as labor costs. In effect, it would provide (at least in theory) an already taken-off design, ready for the contractor—who’ll receive it electronically, of course—to price out and bid.

Will we actually see this in the next 20 years?

Castillo says, "Now, if the architect could draw an intelligent drawing in the sense that you can then click on a wall and this wall is intelligent enough to then tell me: ‘I am a 2.08 R-value rated wall, I have studs, I have this kind of insulation, drywall, and this finish,’ as opposed to me telling the drawing what the wall is made up of ... that would be very interesting.

"That is something I’d like to see in the near future, or at least in the next 20 years: Intelligent Drawings.”

Green Mountain Drywall’s McFarren, is quite emphatic: "The design will never become that technical. The architectural drawings, even now, are far from adequate.”

Ronsco’s Zaretzky: "Oh, definitely. There’s already a move toward on-screen take-off. Once you teach the software what a symbol means, it will go through the plan and start counting.”

"And as for intelligent drawings that already include all quantities needed to work up a quote, absolutely. That’s just an extension of what we have now using BIM (Building Information Modeling) databases.

"Hopefully, the software will then also be able to tell manufacturers by when what will be needed, enabling just-in-time manufacturing and delivery, and saving us all a bundle.”

Simpson Commercial Contracting’s Riley: "Everybody is already using on-screen take-off, so intelligent drawings would be a natural development. The real caveat, though, is you would need a very skilled and experienced architect to do the design. He would have to know what goes into the wall, precisely.”

Van Hekken isn’t so sure it would work: "I don’t know if it’ll ever reach the point of intelligent drawings. That would mean that the architect had to specify that database and populate it with the things to pick from. It would also mean that the architect would make the choices.

"Every contractor wants to do things a little differently; he wants to pick his own products. If all the choices were already made, that would not give the contractor any room to be creative, or to apply his or her expertise.

"Nor would it give him the choice to use preferred products. We all have them; our guys are used to them, and we know the production rates we’ll achieve with them. If you take that all away, you lose your edge on how your figure your production and how you’ll differentiate yourself from the competition.”

Brady Company’s DeHorn has his doubts as well. He says, "Software is changing in both estimating and design. Designers already have the capability to design a building that knows how much of what is needed to build it—intelligent drawings.

"The only problem is that such software, at least for now, is not smart enough to determine the different labor factors. In other words, at what point up the wall does your product rate begin to slow?

"If the wall is 14 feet tall, and calls for a ceiling at 10 feet, when we take off, we determine the above-ceiling board as being much more labor-intensive than the below-ceiling board because you have to cut around pipes and ducts. I don’t think these computers will be able to determine that. Perhaps one day.

"Today, the software can determine that we have 500,000 square feet of drywall, but it can’t tell you what percentages are at what production rates, and that is a crucial bit of information when bidding.”

Green Building Codes
The consensus is almost unanimous: 20 years from now we’re building green, and most likely because building codes specify it.

Simpson Commercial Contracting’s Riley: "Unless they start giving real tax-incentives as a financial reason to build green, most people are going to stay with cheaper designs.

"However, once they tax-incentive green to be the less expensive way to go, and I suspect they will, we’ll start to see green building.”

Acousti Engineering’s Johnson is sure about it: "There is no doubt that green is upon us. I think the government will step in to give green the momentum it needs to take off as a stimulus. By 2015 we are going to see a lot of code changes toward green.”

Drywall Connections’ Burley believes that "in 20 years, we’ll all be building green. And if the industry demands it, which I think it will, we’ll see green building codes in 20 years. Especially with the gas situation and the entire country more energy-aware and willing to cut costs by incorporating alternative fuels.”

Sides says that "20 years from now, you won’t have a choice but to build green. The state of our natural resources is such that this is what we’ll have to do from now on.”

Cord Contracting’s Anikstein agrees: "Yes, I believe that will happen. It’s not in the building codes yet, but more and more buildings in New York are being built green with LEED® certification, often platinum LEED.

"So, definitely; especially with energy prices being what they now are, they want to make these buildings as efficient as possible. It’ll hit the codes by then.”

Brady Company’s DeHorn agrees that green could very well be part of the building codes by then, but Artcraft Wall & Ceiling Contractors’ Birkeland is not so sure. He says he is at 50/50: "I don’t know if green building will find its way into the building codes in 20 years or not, primarily due to the extra costs.”

C & G Contracting’s Gardner thinks we will have no choice: "I cannot see how green can help but work its way into the codes; what with the ozone layer and the country becoming more and more environmentally conscious.”

Twenty Years Down the Road
The other shoe most contractors are waiting to hit the floor is where the federal government is heading on immigration reform. It’s a crucial issue for our industry, and until we know for sure, there is no best course of action; though it is a safe bet to recruit and train as many skilled craftsmen as possible.

As for the remaining issues, time will definitely tell.

Let’s compare notes 20 years down the road.

Los Angeles-based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images.