It has been an interesting decade since the nation’s economy plunged into The Great Recession. Roofing, for the most part, fared better than most construction trades.

New residential construction ground to a halt, but retrofit roofing continued to move forward powered by hurricanes and hail storms. New construction and capital improvement projects on commercial buildings were delayed or abandoned. Commercial roofing contractors, however, managed to survive — and many even thrive — with the emergence of separate roof maintenance divisions that offered building owners the option of repairing versus replacing their roofs as the economy limped along.

Around this same time, storm restoration specialists virtually rewrote the playbook for residential reroofing by introducing a flexible business model that could ramp up within days of a storm event. The rapid decline in the nation’s economy may have inspired some of these changes, but they were made possible by a combination of new technologies and a move to a subcontract labor force.   

As for the technological developments in roofing, such as weather apps that track hail damage down to the city block and enterprise systems that manage all aspects of a roofing business; they’re here to stay and continue to improve. Where the move to subcontract labor is concerned, I believe it’s possible for the pendulum to swing back in the direction of roofing contractors employing all their own troops.

Am I dreaming?

The world of residential roofing moved largely to subs years ago and does not appear to be looking back. If all the residential sub crews were to suddenly go away, it might take a generation to catch up with the resulting backlog. On the commercial side, however, it wasn’t that many years ago when it was unheard of for a legitimate roofing contractor to employ subs to do any significant roof installation work.

A diminishing workforce finally forced many commercial roofing contractors to begin employing some sub crews. I can recall conversations with roofing contractors lamenting the fact that their roofing businesses had moved in that direction. Now it’s a common practice, and some labor-only subcontractors are emerging from the shadows — advertising their services to the market while commercial roofing contractors increase their use of subcontract labor.

So what difference does it make? Labor is labor, right? I may be old-school in my thinking, but I still believe there’s great value in a well-trained, employed workforce. I believe the roofing industry will always be measured by the quality of our workers and we must continue to build them up. Their training must be continuous, and they should be recognized for the incredible work they perform.

If roofing contractors of the future operate in the manner of a general contractor — simply brokering the project by handing over the heavy lifting to subs and suppliers — that would be most unfortunate. Every business gets paid based on the value they add in the marketplace. A qualified roofing contractor who puts a trained and qualified workforce on the job is ultimately going to be paid better while consistently delivering superior work. Residential or commercial.

It may be impossible to get the genie back into the bottle, but I believe roofing contractors who are committed to their trade for the long haul should place serious emphasis on constantly building a well-trained and sustainable workforce.