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Carpentry among industries that aren't rebounding after recession

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 12:04 AM

IN LAS VEGAS -- Every day in this desert city, the carpenters climb into their pickups and vans, resumes stacked on the passenger seats, driving first to the union hall, then in circles from one chain-linked construction site to another, asking for work.

For a year or more, it has been the same.

Nothing.

If they keep pursuing work as carpenters, in fact, many of them may never find a job.

In past recessions, it has been an article of faith that as the economy revives, the work will return. But after the profound recession that began in December 2007, jobs in some industries aren't coming back.

This creates what economists call "structural unemployment," the result of a mismatch between the skills of the workforce and those needed by employers. It is feared because it causes longer unemployment spells as workers struggle to transition from one trade to another.

In few occupations is its mark clearer than among carpenters. In May 2006, about 1 million people were employed as carpenters, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By last year, that number had shrunk to less than 750,000. Economists predict it is unlikely to climb back to those levels for years.

To get a closer look at the phenomena, The Washington Post tracked down 31 carpenters who had worked on one of the biggest projects in Las Vegas, a city that was swept up in the speculative building frenzy and now has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

Today, at least 22 of the 31 are unemployed, many of them for a year.

Five have lost their houses because of foreclosure or because they were unable to pay the rent. Three others are living with their parents or in-laws. Many of the rest, still slipping financially, fear they are headed in the same direction.

The workers keep seeking carpentry jobs because that is what they know. They've had apprenticeships, training and experience in the field. They've built high-rises, bridges and power plants. And the union wage is $37 an hour, so when overtime flows, they can make good incomes.

Construction workers are used to ups and downs, but this time is different, and the carpenters, often bluff and profane, speak in faltering voices when asked about their prospects.

A year has gone by since Mike Davis, 48, last worked on a project, and he and his wife have left their 3,600-square-foot house for an extended-stay motel. It's in a neighborhood where he says he has become accustomed to police sirens. They've lost their health insurance. Davis, who has placed well in state carpentry competitions, has never been out of work for more than three weeks.

He gets a worried look when asked what lies ahead.

"There's a lot of good guys out there," Davis said, his voice just above a whisper, blinking and then swiveling to face a brown mountain in the distance. "But they're not able to do much more these days than lace up their boots every morning."

Hard work, big rewards

During the boom, the $8.5 billion CityCenter project was one of the biggest, glitziest private construction projects in the nation.

The money came through MGM Mirage, a hotel and gaming company, and Dubai World, an investment company that manages a portfolio for the Dubai government. To design it, they gathered some of the world's best-known architects, including Cesar Pelli, Rafael Vinoly, Norman Foster, Helmut Jahn and Daniel Libeskind.

Sometimes, the carpenters worked 15-hour days, bolting together the forms shaping the structure for a curving, tilting landmark. They often started as early as 5 a.m. and worked through the afternoon, when the summer temperatures rose to more than 100 degrees. Pulling tool belts weighing 50 pounds or more, they lugged lumber and braces, dodged cranes, and clambered up and down walls.

The work was dangerous at times. There were six fatalities at the CityCenter construction site by June 2008. For the crew Davis was on, which built tunnels beneath the project, there were injuries, too. One worker damaged his shoulder and can no longer do construction. Jim Brown, the general foreman, had two of his vertebrae fused together and says that as a result, "I'll never wear the belt again." And in a wrestling match between two carpenters, some horsing around that got out of control, one man broke his knee.

But there were rewards for their sweat and their skill. They earned the union wage and lots of overtime.

Some bought big houses in gated neighborhoods. Others bought boats or trucks. Mike Davis lived in a 3,600-square-foot house and bought his wife a used Jaguar.

"I figured I'd worked all these years and I asked myself, 'Don't I deserve it?' " he said.

Tony Kuberski had a house on a large lot and a 21-foot boat he used to take out on Lake Meade.

Justin Sanchez, 37, the father of three young children, was clearing $100,000 a year. He bought his wife a Michael Kors purse. For his two daughters, he shopped at Justice, an upscale clothier. And he visited Tiffany's at the mall so many times that the employees knew him.

"They knew me by name in there," he recalled. "They'd say, 'Hello, Mr. Justin. What can I do for you?' "

Waiting for the boot

They thought it would never end.

But by the beginning of 2009, other carpenters began showing up at the CityCenter site, looking for work, and that made everyone nervous.

"I kept hearing things, and I kept asking him what we were going to do when the CityCenter ends," recalled Laura Sanchez, Justin's wife.

Then, between November 2009 and February 2010, eight members of the carpenters union committed suicide, said Dan Dyrdahl, the financial secretary and treasurer for Carpenters Local 1977.

"Every time I turned around, somebody was coming into my office to say that someone just popped themselves in the head with a 9mm or some other thing," he said. "You can't positively link it to the downturn, but something was happening."

Most of the men on the tunnels crew worked their last day at CityCenter a year ago.

Gary Puckett, 37, who has a wife and four children, is losing to foreclosure the house that he bought for $150,000.

"I'm just waiting for them to give me the boot now," he said recently, calling from a cellphone with his kids in the back seat.

Robert Kelly, 46, is living in the Cleveland area. Before he became a carpenter, he was a factory machinist, but the work went overseas. He notes that now he is a grandfather and is living with his mother.

"Believe me, I'm not exactly proud of it," he said.

And Kuberski, 60, is tapping his savings when he should be preparing for retirement. His wife recently took a part-time job at an airport ticket counter. As he looks for jobs, he worries that employers will pass him over because they consider him too old for the most demanding physical work.

His 21-foot boat now sits in the driveway with a hand-painted "for sale" sign on it. He's making cactus statues out of rebar, wire frame and concrete, which he has sold in the past for a few hundred dollars.

"Any way to make a buck," he said.

The most telling sculpture may be the one that Kuberski posted by his front door. Made with a gray substance similar to window caulking, it depicts a human figure struggling to stand up.

"I guess that's me trying to get off my knees," he said. "It's also about trying to get some balance in your life."

Holding out hope

From an economist's point of view, the answer is obvious.

Some carpenters need to move to other job markets, other fields.

But it isn't easy to go elsewhere, especially when some can't sell their homes in the depressed market.

Moreover, the carpenters are reluctant to abandon their trade to start as a rookie in another field. Union carpenters in Nevada train as apprentices for four years. Many have had fathers or uncles in the trade. And several said they simply like to build massive projects - bridges, memorials, high-rises - and watch them "come out of the ground."

Exactly how much of the unemployment is "structural" is a matter of debate among economists. But it evokes deep concern because it is resistant to stimulus efforts and other quick policy measures.

Already, long-term unemployment has become one of the defining aspects of the recession. The incidence of people who have been unemployed for more than six months is much higher than it has been in 60 years.

Some analysts fear that some of the most acute problems may arise for men with a high school education or less who have worked in manufacturing and construction trades. Within the Obama administration, economists and policymakers refer to this as "the brawny-man problem."

Whatever it is called, it has put enormous pressure on workers to shift or to uproot themselves and their families.

Most of the carpenters continue to hope for another job in the field. Only a few are exploring other options.

Jim Brown has been developing a gizmo for hot rods that increases their power. Chad Wallace, who was injured, is going to school for construction management. Kelly, back in Cleveland with his mom, is considering taking classes as an X-ray technician. Aaron Knox found a job making epoxy floors at the airport.

Others are scattering to find work: Of the seven who have landed somewhat steady jobs, three have had to leave Nevada to get them. One is doing piecework in El Paso and two are working on a water reclamation project in Washington state.

Sanchez recently talked to a job recruiter who was offering a trucking job in Colorado. About the same time, he received a letter asking him, his wife and children - ages 8, 6 and 4 - to vacate their home, which had gone into foreclosure. They'd stopped making the $1,510 mortgage payment earlier this year.

"They said I'd have to move, that it would be cold weather, 80 to 100 hours a week, hard work," he recalled of his interview. "They said, 'Dude, can you handle it?' I said, 'At this point, I'll do anything.' "

At a recent cookout at Brown's home, the men gathered for hamburgers. They joked and teased as they had a year ago on the job and tried to lift one another's spirits.

"You have to be optimistic," Davis said. "There may be thousands of guys out there for that one job. You have to say, 'I'm going to be the one.' "

The men nod. A silence falls.

Art Fisher adds: "You can't give up."

The men nod again, but no one looks convinced.

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