The first thing Steve Taylor remembers noticing when he drove into the Washington area last August was a skyline dotted with construction cranes.
"It made a man in the construction industry smile," said Taylor, who -- along with his wife, JoAnn -- had come to Washington in search of the better life after fleeing the oil-bust town of Corpus Christi, Tex.
Taylor and his wife are not alone. Thousands of unemployed Texas construction workers have flocked to the Washington area during the past year in hopes of cashing in on the metropolitan area's healthy and -- more importantly -- stable economy.
For many of the desperate unemployed, who are emerging as a new kind of skilled migratory worker traversing the nation in search of work, Washington has become one of the cities offering hope.
They have received a warm welcome from area developers and builders, who are grappling with a lack of skilled and unskilled workers during a time when the metropolitan area has become one of the na- tion's busiest office and residential construction markets.
The Texans are providing the Washington firms with a needed and often relatively cheap supply of labor. In the past year, area firms have hired thousands of Texas architects, engineers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and others who have packed their belongings and left their memories in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin and other economically weary areas throughout the Lone Star state.
The state they left behind once was healthy and fast-growing, one that not long ago was seen as an economic oasis. But clearly the tide has turned against Texas, its economic vibrancy shattered in the past two years by falling oil prices.
There have been immigrants to Washington from other oil-depressed states, such as Louisiana and Oklahoma, and from other professions, such as the computer and banking industries. But none are as visible as the Texas construction workers, both blue-collar and professional, whose cars and trucks with Texas plates have become an increasingly familiar sight on area roads in the past year.
They are leaving a state where the number of unemployed workers shot up to 716,000 in September, a sharp rise from the 459,000 of three years earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In August, 8.3 percent of the Texas population was unemployed. Only four states had higher unemployment, and the nationwide unemployment rate stood at 5.8 percent.
By comparison, as recently as August 1984 -- when 7.3 percent of the U.s. work force was unemployed -- Texas boasted an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent. At that time, 32 states had higher unemployment.
The workers aren't leaving just the big cities. They also are packing up and fleeing places such as McAllen, Laredo and Edinburg, where recent unemployment has exceeded 15 percent, according to the U.S. figures.
In addition to native Texans, this new generation of work searchers includes families who flocked to Texas in droves in the 1970s after tough times in states such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Now, after their brief economic success, they are on the road again.
A growing number of large and small Texas companies have joined the caravans of families giving up on the state. These firms believe that spreading their operations to other cities is the only way to stay afloat financially.
While these displaced Texans have found work here, many said they are having a hard time coping with Washington's higher housing, food and transportation costs, as well as its faster pace of life.
In the Washington area, experienced architects and engineers earn between $50,000 and $70,000 a year, according to local building executives. Plumbers, carpenters and electricians working on housing and office developments can get up to $20 per hour, while unskilled laborers generally earn $5 to $7 per hour.
Most local building officials said Texans have been willing to work for less, but none would disclose specifics.
For the Texan-turned-Washingtonian, the increased costs of housing, entertainment, food and other items is more than a nasty perception. Those families fleeing the San Antonio area this year, for instance, have found the cost of living to be 17 percent higher here, according to Runzheimer International, a Rochester, Wis., management-consulting firm that specializes in analyzing an area's living costs for companies considering relocating their employes.
According to the firm, a family of four with a gross annual income of $49,361 in San Antonio would have to earn $57,704 in the Washington area to maintain a life style similar to the one they enjoyed in Texas.
For Taylor, who stuffed all his belongings into his pickup truck and car, the decision to move to Washington was an easy one, even though he didn't know for sure he would find a job.
"I could have sat at home and watched things get repossessed, or do something about it," said Taylor, who recently got a job as a construction superintendent at a housing development being built in Montgomery County.
In Corpus Christi, he was laid off from what once was a high-paying job with a development firm that built upscale condominiums. In Washington, he makes less money -- he wouldn't say how much -- and has higher living expenses.
"We're watching our pennies now," Taylor said. "But we came here so I could stay in the construction industry, and quite literally to be able to eat."
For many Washington area construction firms, the influx of Texas workers has come during a frenetic building period when not enough skilled local help has been available. Even before the Texans began arriving, many companies looked to North Carolina, West Virginia and Pennsylvania to fill positions.
"The Texans seem to be a lot better trained than the workers in this area," said Herbert Duvall, who has hired about 10 Texans in the past six months at his drywall and painting firm in Manassas.
Like other employers, Duvall said he has hired his Texas employes on a trial basis, usually at wages lower than those paid to local workers. "But within two months they are up to standard pay, because they know what they are doing," he said.
Some of the larger development, construction and architectural firms in the Washington area have run help-wanted advertisements in Texas newspapers and set up temporary employment offices in Dallas, Houston and other Texas cities in an effort to attract Texans.
Fairfax-based Dewberry & Davis, one of the largest local architectural, engineering and planning firms, has hired more than 100 Texans after making several recruitment trips to the oil-bust state.
"It's cheaper for us than trading people between existing local firms and driving the wage scale higher," said Richard Penner, the firm's assistant director of human resources.
Penner said the Texans his firm has hired "are either out of work or they're so afraid of being out of work they'd rather make the move now than stay in Texas."
For other companies, attracting Texans has been the only way to keep up with the busy pace of building in the metropolitan area.
"We've found that to keep our projects working we have to look out of state," said Nick Kern, a vice president with Oxford Development Corp. He said that over the past 18 months his firm has hired a dozen Texas subcontracting firms, which have brought with them about 600 carpenters, electricians and other workers.
"They're talented, harder workers and more competitively priced than local workers," Kern said. "They can put 100 men on the job, while a local contractor is lucky to give you 40 men."
State employment offices here also have looked south to solve the Washington area's shortage of skilled and semiskilled workers. Earlier this year, the Falls Church office of the Virginia Employment Commission set up a unique job referral service in an attempt to fill vacant positions here with workers from the Houston area.
Since April, more than 1,200 resumes have been received from Texans desperate for work, according to Wesley Caison, the agency's job service manager.
Caison said his office has been looking to Houston to fill local slots for engineers, carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers "and anyone with a skill in the construction industry," as well as computer programmers, auto mechanics and secretaries. Caison's office recently stopped taking applications under the trial program in order to evaluate it.
When the program -- the first of its kind in the nation for state employment agencies -- began this spring, some critics "commented about Texans taking jobs from Virginians," Caison said. "But the purpose of this is to help the employer recruit a qualified candidate. The employer doesn't care where they come from."
For Texas firms not able to ride out the state's economic woes, the Washington area has been a savior from possible bankruptcy.
"Washington has been called an everlasting market," said Vic Means, president of VRI Builders, a Coppell, Tex., apartment development and construction firm that recently moved part of its operations to the Washington area, as well as to cities in Ohio, Georgia and Florida.
Means said his company, which previously had operated solely in Texas, still was going strong in the Dallas and Forth Worth markets until about a year ago. In recent years, Means' firm did $50 million worth of business a year in the Dallas area. But the state's oil bust has slashed his Dallas work to a $1 million industrial building project.
By moving to Washington, where the firm now has $20 million worth of projects in Fairfax and Prince George's counties, VRI has managed to stay in business. In the past six months, VRI has sent about 20 members of its staff to the Washington area and has hired about 150 workers from Texas subcontractors.
Texas building officials, accustomed to dealing with bad news over the past couple of "If we don't have work for them, they should certainly go where they can be employed." -- Houston Builders Association's Max Hoyt years, seem to take it in stride that firms are fleeing their state.
"You've got to go where the business is, I guess," said Jack Zimmer, executive director of the Associated Builder Contractors of Dallas, a local trade group that has lost 25 percent of its membership over the past year. "About 20 percent of them are no longer in business, and the rest have moved somewhere else."
While many economists recently have said that the Texas economy can dip no lower, others have suggested it could be well into the next decade before the state will be back to some form of normalcy. Nonetheless, some Texas building experts remain optimistic.
"We've taken our hits, but we think we're on the good side of the curve now," said Max Hoyt, executive director of the Greater Houston Builders Association.
He added that, in the meantime, his group recognizes workers will continue to leave the state. "If we don't have work for them, they should certainly go where they can be employed," said Hoyt, whose group has 1,100 companies as members, down 500 from several years ago.
Few of the Texans arriving in the Washington area over the past year say they have witnessed any form of the resentment that greeted out-of-work steel and auto workers arriving in Texas from Michigan and other Rust Belt states in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Unemployed workers from Michigan driving down the Texas highways then were ungraciously called "black-tag people" for the color of their license plates. Many people considering moving to Texas were made to understand one thing: Stay home.
But in the Washington area, where transient workers are certainly not unusual, the most attention displaced Texans have received is the occasional long stare from drivers impressed by the oversized pickup trucks that many Texans seem to love.
"I've gotten some kidding for being from Texas," Taylor, dressed in blue jeans and cowboy boots, said in his soft twang. "But everyone has been extremely polite."
Area employers have received the Texans warmly, seeing them as an abundant and grateful supply of much-needed workers. "They are filling jobs, and any time you can get skilled professionals into the work force, you have to be pleased," said Raymond LaPlaca, president of the Suburban Maryland Building Industry Association.
Yet even with the influx of Texas labor, LaPlaca said, there has been "no effect" on what he called a severe shortage of skilled and unskilled construction workers facing building firms throughout the region.
For the newly arrived Texas worker, Washington is a welcome but extreme change.
Rick Gray, who works at VRI's project in Fairfax, moved to Texas in 1982 after getting out of the Air Force and began making his way up the line in the construction industry. By last year, he and his wife were able to afford their first home.
But earlier this year, when the Dallas-Fort Worth construction industry bottomed out, Gray was laid off. Two months later he was called back and, along with the firm's other employes, given a choice: move with the company to more fertile states or face employment uncertainty in Texas. In July, Gray, a carpenter foreman, moved to a hotel in the Virginia suburbs and began looking for a home before his wife, Karla, joined him.
Today, the young couple pays $725 a month for a rented Falls Church house that is smaller and nearly one-third more expensive than their Texas house, which they still have not been able to sell because of Forth Worth's strained real estate market.
Having lived through the collapse of an area's economy, Gray and others interviewed said it is difficult to plan for the future with any real certainty. "I was told I would be here for one year, but there's no way for me to know what we'll be doing by then," Gray said.
Gray's coworkers agreed that moving halfway across the country without any guarantees is difficult.
"It's kind of frustrating for me," said Kevin Cox, a VRI supervisor who moved to Washington last November. "But when you have a wife and two kids, you've got to do what you've got to do."