Albert Crites rises at 4 a.m. every weekday, grabs some coffee and doughnuts, hops in his 1980 Ford Thunderbird and drives to work in Fairfax County's booming construction industry.
What makes Crites' daily commute remarkable is that it take 2 1/2 hours, covers 120 miles of winding roads and begins at his home in Moorefield, W.Va., deep in the Shenandoah Mountains.
Crites, 40, a construction foreman, is one of many out-of-state residents who have been lured from depressed towns to booming Fairfax County, where the rolling landscape bursts with new high-rises and town houses, and where construction jobs are plentiful. The commute, Crites acknowledged, is long, but it is preferable, he said, to spending weeknights away from his wife and three children.
Nor is he alone. Rick Kathcart, a purchasing agent for another Fairfax builder, said that when he leaves his home in Kearneysville, W.Va., the roads are "packed" and most of the motorists are headed for the Washington area.
Contractors, along with other Fairfax employers, are suffering from the worst shortage of blue-collar and service industry workers in recent memory. The county's unemployment rate in March was 2.4 percent, compared with a nationwide average of 7.5 percent.
Although the nearby District of Columbia suffered from a March unemployment rate of 8.1 percent, with 26,000 people out of work, Fairfax employers say they cannot get enough workers from the Washington area.
Consequently, they have looked as far away as North Carolina and Florida. In Martinsburg, W.Va., 12 miles north of the Virginia border, the local job service office fields many calls from Virginia contractors short on help, says office manager Bill Rich.
West Virginia newspapers regularly carry Fairfax "help wanted" advertisements. And West Virginia workers say they are frequently asked about the job opportunities in Northern Virginia by friends back home, where the state unemployment rate in March was 13.4 percent.
In Fairfax City, where the Tyger Construction Co. is building a $12.5 million addition to the county jail, only a handful of workers come from Fairfax, and only three or four live in the District, says project superintendent Bill Conklin.
At least 70 percent of the workers on the state and county-funded project come from out of state. In the parking lot next to where the jail is being built, the majority of cars and trucks -- including Albert Crites' Thunderbird -- carry the yellow and blue license plates of West Virginia.
"There's no work back there," said Crites, "unless you want to work in a plant or something. They've got a chicken place and a kitchen cabinet factory, but that's about the cream of the crop right there."
"At home, I could expect to make $5 to $7 an hour doing carpentry work," said Ron Musser, 24, a carpenter from Petersburg, W.Va. "Here, I'm making $12."
Many workers, unwilling to make long-distance daily commutes and unable to afford housing in Fairfax, spend their weeks in shared apartments or campgrounds near Front Royal or Manassas.
They grab Roy Rogers dinners, 7-Eleven hot dogs, and live for Fridays, when they pack their suitcases and car pool back to their other lives.
"It hurts your relationships," said Duane Boggs, 22, a heavy equipment operator from Sutton, W.Va. He and his fiance split up a month and a half ago. "I only got to see her on weekends."
"When I'm at home, I've only got enough time to mow the lawn and help feed the kids," said Jim Musser, 27, a carpenter foreman from Petersburg. "My wife and I get to go out every once in a while."
"You sort of break after a while and start to accept it, but I've still got a lot of $100 phone bills going back home," said ironworker Joe Frontino, 20, one of 16 from Barnesboro, Pa., 4 1/2 hours north of Fairfax.
"I don't like the commute at all," said Rick Sergent, 21, a carpenter from Sutton. "But I can't depend on my parents anymore, and the mines are laying off a lot of people so there's no work there. I heard that Fairfax County was starting to boom, so I took off and came up here."
Conklin, the project superintendent, said he doesn't try to hire out-of-state employes; that's who show up at his construction trailer, looking for work.
"I manage to man most of my job just from people who come through the gate," he said. "I didn't start with a full crew. You get a few, then you ask around if the people have any friends."
The lack of available labor in Northern Virginia still surprises him, he said.
He has built buildings from the Pacific Northwest to Maine, and until starting the Fairfax jail, he never had trouble finding enough close-by workers for a medium-sized project.
Even after all the advertising, and word-of-mouth inquiries, he's still short a dozen carpenters and carpenter-helpers for his crew.
"The District seems so close that you wonder why in the heck they couldn't just come over," he said.
Although he praises his crew, he said supervising so many out-of-staters has its own special problems. A higher proportion of employes are absent, late or unwilling to do make-up work on Saturdays, he said.
"We'd never get a full force on the weekend, and I've tried everything in my power," he added, including offering a 25-cent-per-hour bonus for those who stay until the job is completed in January.
Car pooling is another headache, and sometimes results in Conklin's having too few -- or too many -- men on the job at any time. "They have 100 excuses about why they can't stay, or can't go," he sighed.
One way to ease the local labor shortage, say Fairfax contractors, is to develop a pool of area workers skilled in carpentry, ironworking and other trades.
The newest of the local training programs is the nonprofit corporation established three months ago by the 800-member Northern Virginia Builders Association.
The Institute for Construction Trades, as it is known, currently has 30 students paying $150 for six-month courses in carpentry and poured concrete. After graduation, the students will find regular jobs, but continue to take weekly seminars for 3 1/2 years.
"We don't think the answer is bringing people in from other parts of the world," says Bob Murphy of R.J. Murphy Carpenter-Contractors Inc. of Springfield. "It's not a solution. Because only a certain percentage of them will stay. Training them here is the answer."
Murphy needs 50 carpenters and carpenter-helpers to supplement his regular crew of 100. He has advertised locally, but also as far north as Long Island and Philadelphia, as well as in West Virginia.
Even with the out-of-state workers, labor is still so tight, he said, that many contractors are resorting to pirating. "It's cutthroat. Every moment of the day. You try and treat your people as best you can, but guys will go for 25 cents more an hour. You pull on the job and half of your people have just been hired by another contractor."