How to Reduce Labor Expense Without Sacrificing Quality

Photos: CertainTeed

Labor shortages have been a longstanding issue in the construction industry. With not as many skilled tradespeople as needed to do the work, roofing contractors have to work smart to stay competitive and maintain profits. Roofing manufacturers have adapted to the labor shortage by developing labor-saving products that are easier to master and install.

To help commercial roofing contractors make more informed product decisions, CertainTeed commissioned Trinity|ERD, a well-recognized building envelope consulting firm, to conduct “Factors Impacting Low-Slope Roofing: A National Labor Study,” which quantifies the labor differences between self-adhered modified bitumen, traditional bituminous systems and single-ply roof coverings. This independent, five-year low-slope labor study analyzed the installation of 45 different roofs with six popular roof covers in 18 different configurations in various regions of the country, isolating and timing product and task-level installation data, and observing where efficiencies or inefficiencies occurred. The study also combined observed labor data with national average labor and material costs to allow for a comparison of installed costs across 12 popular modified bitumen and singe-ply roof assemblies.

While the study confirms that product selection impacts labor efficiency and ultimately earnings, a contractor’s ability to turn a profit is multifaceted. In addition to product labor analysis, the study produced a wealth of information on how commercial contractors can improve their efficiency across any roof covering by optimizing their crew management, project management and estimating accuracy.

Here are some observations from the study that can improve the productivity of commercial roofing contractors, regardless of product selection:

Roofing manufacturers have adapted to the labor shortage by developing labor-saving products, including self-adhered modified bitumen roofing. Photos: CertainTeed

· Estimate for Temperature and Environment. Environmental factors associated with a project should always be factored into estimates. Productivity can slow down in both high and low temperatures. Cold weather often creates more work due to heating adhesives being required, longer periods for relaxing rolls, longer welding times of membranes (APP, SBS, TPO, PVC) and the need for cumbersome cold-weather clothing. Heat can often cause fatigue and the need to hydrate often, resulting in more break periods. Also, projects taking place at night are typically slower than daytime projects, as the area of work is constrained to lighted areas and tools are more difficult to find in the darkness.

· Improve Crew Communication. Roof cover installation is optimal when the installing crew works as a coordinated team. Crews that spoke multiple languages or crews with limited understanding of one another tend to have longer installation times.

· Specialize Crew Tasks. Productivity increased when multiple crew members carried out narrowly defined work activities to complete a task as a team, as opposed to a single man completing the full breadth of the task alone. For example, when hand-held screw guns were used, laborers that staged and placed screws/plates as one phase of work — and either dropped back to install or were followed by another crew member to install — were more efficient than a single individual carrying pouches of screws and plates.

· Stage Products With Foresight. Material movement and staging was a critical component in speed at application. Projects that were staged with easy material access for installers resulted in faster installations. Crews that relied on installers to stage their own materials required fewer personnel on the roof, but at the cost of slower overall installation times.

· Employ Strong Management. Rooftop supervision and direction – including effective management of roof loading, managing break times, staging materials for easy access, prefabrication (such as combining screws and plates) and staging materials which have already acclimated to the temperature/environment – played a pivotal role in faster installation times.

Environmental factors associated with a project should always be taken into account during extimates. Extreme weather can slow down productivity. Photos: CertainTeed

· Implement Quality Control. Across the country, the labor study observed a variety of quality control methods ranging from no in-application quality controls to extensive quality controls conducted by both foremen and in-house, third-party quality managers. A lack of in-application quality control reduces upfront labor, but increases the likelihood that a crew will need to return to correct issues found post-inspection. As with many things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

· Use and Manage Tools Wisely. The efficient use of tools and tool accessories has a measurable impact on installation times. For example, the installation of a bituminous cap membrane with a multi-torch cart (a.k.a. “dragon wagon”) was completed in 86 percent of the time required in comparison to a hand-held torch. Automated screw and plate installers provide a measurable time advantage; however, a knowledgeable mechanic or crew member who has rooftop access to spare parts is crucial in case the machine jams or malfunctions. Poorly maintained automatic welders (single-ply TPO/PVC) with inconsistent power and/or damaged parts (nozzles and silicone wheels) slow down productivity and hamper the quality of the application. Blowers used on roofs to clean surfaces and move large sections of membrane on a cushion of air were effective and increased productivity in multiple applications.

Increasing Efficiency

The ability of a crew to quickly and profitably install a low-slope roof system cannot be isolated to the specific type of roof cover being installed. A roofing crew’s efficiency is also impacted by climate, project parameters, tools, safety requirements, quality requirements and crew management. Roofing estimators and managers should clearly identify the factors impacting their crews, optimize productivity whenever possible and adjust their estimates accordingly. While project parameters and management apply a high degree of variability to every job, proper training, project management and crew management can significantly increase efficiency and help contractors extract the most profit from projects.

Understanding the many factors that impact crew efficiency can help contractors produce better results in less time. The labor study can help roofing contractors better understand labor efficiencies by product, more accurately estimate the labor associated with certain tasks and improve installation efficiency across all roof covering types.

For the full 20-page CertainTeed/Trinity|ERD study, including detailed analysis of labor data and installed cost for various roof assemblies, visit www.certainteed.com/laborstudy.

About the author: Abby Feinstein is Product Manager, Commercial Roofing for CertainTeed Corporation. For more information, visit www.certainteed.com.

Survey Finds Labor Shortages Are Increasing

Nearly three-fourths of construction firms across the country report they are having trouble finding qualified craft workers to fill key spots, according to the results of an industry-wide survey released by the Associated General Contractors of America, Arlington, Va. Association officials called for immigration- and education-reform measures to help avoid worker shortages.

Of the 74 percent of responding firms that are having a hard time finding qualified craft workers, the most frequently reported difficulties are in filling onsite construction jobs, like carpenters, equipment operators and laborers. Fifty-three percent are having a hard time filling professional positions, especially project supervisors, estimators and engineers.

Eighty-six percent of respondents said they expect it will remain difficult or get harder to find qualified craft workers; 72 percent say the market for professional positions will remain hard or get worse. Seventy-four percent of respondents report there are not enough qualified craft workers available to meet future demand while 49 percent said there weren’t enough construction professionals available.

To prepare future construction workers, 48 percent of responding firms are mentoring future craft workers; 38 percent are participating in career fairs; and 33 percent are supporting high school-level construction skills academies. In addition, 47 percent of responding firms are offering internships for construction professionals.

Stephen E. Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, says Congress needs to jettison arbitrary caps on construction workers that were included in immigration reform the Senate passed in 2013. “Lifting those restrictions will go a long way to ensuring construction jobs left vacant by domestic labor shortages go to workers who are in the country legally,” he says.

Sandherr urges elected and appointed officials to do more to ensure public-school students have an opportunity to participate in programs that teach skills, like construction. He adds skills-based programs offer students a more hands-on way to learn vital 21st century skills, such as math and science. Such programs also have been proven to reduce dropout rates and give students an opportunity to earn the higher pay and benefits that come with construction jobs.

Nearly 700 construction firms participated in the survey. View the national survey results and analysis, as well as results for 15 states with larger survey samples.