In the spring of 1971, I was number-three man on a three-man crew building a custom home on a hillside in Peacham, Vt. I had never swung a hammer or used any power tools, so I was hired as a laborer and carpenter trainee — meaning I spent the first few weeks shoveling drainage stone, stacking framing lumber, and brooming cold tar onto the foundation. For this I was paid the prevailing wage of $2.00 per hour. Cash. The employee “package” included a free ride to work with the number-two man on the crew, the privilege of getting paid while learning the craft of construction, and the pleasure of working outdoors all day in one of the most beautiful natural settings I'd ever seen.
The notion of a paid holiday never came up, although as I remember it we quit at noon on July Fourth, drove the five miles into the village, and joined the local parade-watchers in a grilled half-chicken lunch that was a traditional part of the festivities. By the end of that summer, I'd learned a lot about how to put a house together, and I'd improved my skills and my value to the crew enough to receive a raise to the princely sum of $2.25 per hour. A month later the project was over and I was out of work.
More and Better Those were the days. The lot of residential construction workers has substantially improved in the last 35 years. In 1971, federal minimum wage for non-farm work was $1.60, so that first summer I was earning almost 41% more. But my counterpart today fares considerably better. According to our first annual Wage & Benefit Survey, which begins on page 74, the national average wage for a carpenter helper is $12.36. That's a whopping 140% more than the federal minimum of $5.15 per hour, and 71% more than current Vermont minimum wage which, at $7.25 per hour, is sixth highest in the country.
That's not the half of it, of course, because today's remodeling companies offer not just better wages, but a complete benefit package that often includes health and dental insurance, paid holidays and vacation time, and a vehicle or tool allowance. Some companies also contribute to employee 401(k) savings plans or share profits through bonuses.
Our Wage & Benefit Survey, which we plan to conduct annually, is not only a benchmark against which you can compare your pay package, it's also a framework that can help you expand the discussion with employees about wages to include the concept of total compensation. In many cases, the so-called “fringe benefits” add almost 50% in dollar value to the hourly wage.
That sure beats a grilled half-chicken on the Fourth of July.