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.