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Housing rebound has construction workers rebuilding lives

June 14, 2014 - 12:05am

The Great Recession turned Eliut Vera into a pilgrim, sending the Orange County, Calif., construction worker to New York on a quest for employment.

“I was a dishwasher, a dry cleaner, a kitchen worker and a cook,” Vera said during a break at an apartment construction site.

Carpenter Claudio Roman ended up working at a soap factory in Utah. Hugo Barragan worked at a plastic bottle factory in Corona, Calif.

And former carpentry foreman Chuck Littlepage did a series of odd jobs — including time as an ironworker and a handyman — scraping enough together to pay the rent.

Now the four are back in Southern California, working at building sites as the construction industry picks up steam again.

Construction jobs in the region were almost cut in half from boom to bust, state employment figures show.

During the past three years, however, builders in the region have hired back more than 56,000 of the 123,000 construction workers who lost their jobs during a building slowdown lasting from 2007 through 2011.

Construction was Southern California’s third-fastest-growing sector in the year ending in April, accounting for 16 percent of all new jobs in the region, state figures show. In Orange County, construction accounted for nearly a third of all new jobs.

The Associated General Contractors of America reported last month that Los Angeles and Orange counties ranked first and third among U.S. metro areas in April in creating new construction jobs.

As a result, a 39-year-old car washer is back to installing fire alarms at a new Irvine, Calif., apartment complex. A 64-year-old superintendent who had to start his own contracting business is back to overseeing Orange County projects for a homebuilding firm.

And a 45-year-old concrete worker who did side jobs to pay child support and room and board is back to driving a cement truck full time.

Construction work slowed to a crawl in 2009. As jobs were cut, said Irvine real estate consultant Walter Hahn, employees either followed work to places such as Texas, Montana, Idaho and Utah “or they just stopped being construction workers.”

But construction work is one of the best-paying blue-collar jobs.

“As soon as things stoke up and things got going again, a lot of people who were doing other things come back,” Hahn said.

Salomon Herbert, 33, of Orange, Calif., is among them.

During the housing boom, Herbert installed heating and air conditioning systems at new housing tracts. But during the downturn, employment in his department dropped to fewer than 14 from 120 workers.

Herbert landed work as a laborer for a general construction firm that did roofing, demolition, remodeling and excavation. His pay fell from about $15 per hour to $10, and he was forced to move into a rented room after short-selling a condo he owned with his brother.

Now he’s back to his old job installing air ducts in new homes, and his family has its own apartment again.

“God provides work for those who believe in him,” he said.

Many contractors say they’re not seeing the old faces. Some have gone to work in the oil industry, warehousing and trucking and aren’t coming back, industry observers said.

“Industry executives indicate they are having trouble finding workers because of the long recession,” said Inland Empire economist John Husing.

Demand for labor makes hiring very competitive, boosting wages and labor costs for employers.

“That same $14.50 an hour guy is now $17. A good craftsman is up to $25 an hour,” said Mari Kurtz, owner of Cal Pac Sheet Metal in Santa Ana, Calif. “You can’t expect to pay any less because there’s (lots of) work.”

Union workers such as electricians and plumbers, however, also aren’t seeing the same increase in jobs unless they’re willing to work on large solar projects in the desert, observers said. Commercial construction that relies more on union labor remains relatively slow.

“We see a little bit of a pick-up, but it’s mainly in the housing and apartment-type work,” said Glen Nolte, a business manager for the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters, Welders & Apprentices local in Orange.