In the past 10 to 15 years, use of immigrant labor in home building has skyrocketed. This supply of low-priced, but qualified, labor is the reason home builders have been able to meet demand for their product. Immigrant workers will no doubt continue to supply manpower in the new home market. And as foreign craftsmen improve their skills and learn the building industry, many will start their own companies.

Roofing, siding, windows

But while immigrants have kept the home building industry supplied with labor, it's remarkable how few have made their way into the remodeling market. Until now, Korean and Hispanic workers have been present mainly in the roofing and siding side of the business and, to a lesser extent, in window installation.

For the remodeling industry, the major holdup to using more foreign-born labor is the inability of immigrants to communicate in English with the homeowner and/or boss. In new home construction, with its larger crews, only one crew member needs to understand English in order to learn what to do.

Design/build companies, often employing the lead carpenter system, have minimal need for large crews. Remodeling companies are understandably reluctant to leave a man alone on a job if he can't call the office for advice or communicate with the client in English.

Walt Stoeppelwerth
Mark Robert Halper Walt Stoeppelwerth

What's going to happen in the near future is that companies will recruit semi-skilled immigrants, then hire a lead carpenter/manager who speaks their language to direct and supervise them. At the same time, immigrant workers will be encouraged to attend English classes along with their other training. An increase in wages will be the obvious incentive. Shot in the arm

This year, the first of the baby boomers, born in 1946, will turn 57. As the population ages, the number of people entering the job market as craftsmen will continue to drop. Foreign-born workers will be a desperately needed shot in the arm for the remodeling and home improvement market as it struggles to meet demand and handle the volume of work.

Another reason why the supply of foreign-born workers is becoming more important is that the DIY market isn't growing. DIY represents about 13% of the total market for building products, a percentage that's dropped because of baby boomers, who have little time, or desire, to work on their houses. Even if they did, houses built today are more complex than 20 or 30 years ago, and, as a result, often require professional attention. Prices have climbed so much that owners had better be prepared to invest in that professional attention if they want to get a good price when it comes time to sell their homes.

Big market for maintenance

The new paradigm is the fact that it's no longer possible to make money selling products. To make money, you must sell a service. This means that home builders and remodelers are going to not only build the projects but they're also going to be asked by the customer to take care of them. This change has brought a huge increase in the handyman and home maintenance business. Another result is that home improvement retailers are being forced by their customers to install their products.

In analyzing the remodeling business, combining the repair and maintenance component with major replacement points to an annual figure of approximately $60 billion a year or more. With the average annual production figure for a full-time handyman somewhere between $100,000 to $150,000 a year, that means at least 600,000 handymen will be needed in the near future. There's no way this demand can be met without immigrants. And that's just for the handyman segment of the remodeling market. --Walt Stoeppelwerth is a publisher of management and estimating information for professional remodelers. (800) 638-8292;;