David Leff started Leff Construction in 1978, and the Sebastopol-based design-build firm has differentiated itself in green and sustainable custom home construction and remodeling projects.
Leff is set to be on a panel of design and building experts at North Bay Business Journal’s Construction Industry Conference on May 31.
He talked to the Journal about the top challenges facing contractors in the region and solutions the industry is pursuing to deal with a shortage of labor and housing, while thousands of North Bay homes will need to be rebuilt after the October wildfires.
What are the biggest problems you face in getting projects into construction and toward completion?
The main problem we’re experiencing now is the labor shortage. What we’re anticipating is subcontractors who are too busy and overextended and having their own labor problems. It’s making it very difficult to predict and maintain accurate schedules.
How does that ripple through your projects?
One of the main impacts is it results in unhappy clients. We try to give them accurate project schedules. If one subcontractor calls and says, “I know we were supposed to be there tomorrow, but we’re going to have to postpone the job for a week, until we can get to your job.” Then that means it trickles down to every sub that comes after that.
It means all these days of delay add up to maybe a month delay in the project. It’s difficult to manage our clients’ expectations.
It’s an inefficient way to work. Our project managers are constantly having to juggle schedules. If one sub is not available when originally scheduled, we constantly have to identify the critical path and how we might rearrange the schedule so we’re not dead in the water for a week while we’re waiting for this sub to show up.
The other issue is a shortage of employees ourselves. Before the fire, we were experiencing difficulty finding competent carpenters and superintendents. Now that’s significantly exacerbated with the fire, and everybody is in the same boat looking for employees.
How are you looking for competent employees?
We’re constantly advertising for employees. We’re looking for people who are competent and skilled but tired of commuting two hours to Marin or San Francisco, who are interested in working locally, even if it means taking a little lower wage.
Subcontractors, because of the fires, are coming in from outside the area, from Central Valley and Sacramento. We’re talking to a couple from the Redding area that are willing to send crews down here. That’s one possible solution, but it’s difficult to vet these subs, because we don’t know them and none of the other local contractors have any experience with them.
Another thing, which is more of a long-term approach, is I’m active in the North Bay Construction Corps on the steering committee and teaching some of the classes. The goal is getting some young people involved in the trades, but that’s going to take a little while.
What have you noticed in the interest level of the high school students?
The goal of the corps is not to give the students in-depth training in any of the trades. It is to expose them to a career in the trades, to give them a taste of plumbing, electrical, carpentry, home-building, underground work. Each of the classes is taught by a company owner.
Then they are learning the “soft skills” to be entry-level: communication skills and safety skills and first-aid certifications. And to make sure they’re serious. It’s not going to be the easiest kind of work, but you can make a good living and learn on the job.
All the woodshops now are focused on making furniture, jewelry boxes, tables and benches. That is nothing like the world of building homes. North Bay Construction Corps is taking them to the next step of building something that’s bigger.
I didn’t realize how important this is. I had a woodshop student recommended to me by his shop teacher. He was the top of his class and thought he wanted to be a carpenter. We hired him as an entry-level apprentice, but after about two weeks of basic laboring work, the kind of work a young person is going to start out doing, he came to me and said, “This is too hard. I don’t want to do this. This isn’t anything like I thought it was going to be in my woodshop class.”
These kids need to be exposed to the real world. These kids coming in it will take a year or two to get the technical skills to be more than apprentices, but in the long term I think it will help our industry. I think we’ll see fire rebuilds going on for five to seven years.
Are you working on fire rebuilds?
We had over 100 phone calls initially to rebuild their homes. We still have a long waiting list, but we’ve narrowed it down to probably doing somewhere between eight and 10 homes now in design.
Most people are taking the opportunity to redesign their homes. It’s either because they were underinsured and need to build a smaller house for financial reasons, or they are empty-nesters and don’t need as big of a house. Or there were things about the house they learned to live with, but they wouldn’t have built the house that way.