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Young Guns: Finding the Next Generation of Deck Builders

Deck Specialist Winter 2018 cover story features TAMKO’s Envision Decking
Robin Lopez
Florida deckbuilder Robin Lopez, the rocket scientist who builds decks.

He’s sometimes called the rocket scientist who builds decks, but Florida deckbuilder Robin Lopez’s unlikely background could make him the posterboy for the future of the skilled trades industry.

Growing up, Lopez realized he loved making things with his hands. By age 12, he had a small business building skim boards and selling them to his friends. But, as a young adult, Lopez figured he should go to college and pursue a high-tech degree. He spent years in a vault as an aerospace engineer designing top secret propulsion systems. He was living his career dreams. There was just one problem: he wasn’t really happy.

“I sat in a windowless room all day – I didn’t know if it was a beautiful day in Florida or not,” Lopez said. “And I couldn’t talk with anyone about my work. No one ever saw what I did.”

An offer to help a co-worker repair his dock after three hurricanes in 2004 turned into a booming business.

“On nights and weekends, I built that dock and I fell in love with actually experiencing weather,” Robin said. “I loved getting to see how much I’d accomplished at the end of the day.”

That was 14 years ago. Today, Robin owns Summertime Deck & Dock in Orlando, Florida, a custom builder with services so desired that he has months of work scheduled out for his crews.

A national crisis

What makes Lopez’ story so important is that, at 38-years-old, he represents what most of the country can’t seem to find: young people who want to go into the building trades.

For some, the housing crash of 2009 feels like an eternity ago, but it’s still a fresh wound in the building and construction industry with devastating effects nearly a decade later. Recent estimates indicate that there are more than 1 million open construction jobs. The question remains: where are all of the skilled laborers? The answer may lie in an entire generation of potential contractors who had to choose something else.

When Janel Landis entered architecture school, her alma mater averaged about 100 graduates a year. During the housing crash, the school was struggling to get 25. The building trades lost an entire generation of skilled workers as students who planned to go into building moved into other areas where they saw job prospects.

“Students could see that so many already in the industry had lost their jobs that they didn’t want to enter the industry,” said Landis, now the business development manager for distribution giant Weyerhaeuser. “There was about a 10-year window where it was just not attractive for people to go into the building industry.”

Robin Lopez dock - Envision Rustic Walnut with Spiced Teak accents
Robin Lopez Envision Distinction dock in Rustic Walnut with Spiced Teak accents.

Changing perceptions

Now that the housing market is booming and demand for the trades is at a record level, businesses from distributors to general contractors are grappling with how to rebuild the industry and fill their ranks. Much of the effort so far has been in changing the perception of the building trades from unskilled to highly-skilled, last resort to in-demand, and menial to lucrative. A movement to expand vocational training and apprenticeship programs is growing in America, and national campaigns like #KeepCraftAlive provide scholarships for students going into the trades.

“There’s no definitive answer, but it’s a daily topic of conversation with the dealers I serve,” said Stacey Baker, dealer sales representative for Weyerhaeuser in Tacoma, Washington. “The question in the Seattle-area is, ‘How do we compete with high-tech jobs?’”

Robin Lopez with his crew Gabriel Rios, Horacio Lara, Adrian Valdes, and Matt Langbehn on an Envision dock they built
Robin Lopez with his crew Gabriel Rios, Horacio Lara, Adrian Valdes, and Matt Langbehn on an Envision dock they built.

Unexpected salvation

Which brings us back to Lopez, the rocket scientist building decks for a living. He highlights the attraction of the trades that goes beyond job security or finances – an often-overlooked selling point that could be the salvation of the industry. And Lopez is not alone.

“I come to work every day and I just love what I do – it’s cool to take something from ground zero and in a short amount of time, I’ve built this amazing deck that I know is going to be around for 20 plus years,” said Jason Katwijk, a 29-year-old deckbuilder in Olympia, Washington who previously worked in an auto shop. “As a mechanic, I was stuck in the same building, staring at the same cars every day and it got boring. Now, any given day, I’m staring out at Mt. Ranier or over a lake or over someone’s million-dollar view.”

Katwijk now travels to educational building events across the country and meets others with a similar story. One of his favorite stories involves a contractor who saw a friend working as a valet in a parking lot. He invited the valet to come work for him, and his response: “Okay, it’s better than what I’m doing now.” Today, the two men have a successful contracting business together.

Phil deLeon, 36, had no construction experience and was working as a part-time UPS employee before going to work for Jason Russell, industry-renowned as Dr. Decks, 10 years ago. One of his favorite parts of the job is getting to exercise his creativity.

“People say, ‘You do construction,’ and I tell them, ‘It’s not really construction – I’m somewhere between a carpenter and an artist,’” deLeon said.

These contractors and many others like them may have stumbled onto the answer to the skilled labor shortage – not fancy programs or campaigns, but rather a remembrance of the fundamental delights lost in much of the modern world--the beauty of the outdoors, a hard day’s work and the satisfaction of building something with your hands.

“These guys are judged on the decks they build – how strong they are, how they look, how happy their customers are – and there’s something very satisfying about that,” said Baker with Weyerhaeuser. “I know the building trades don’t seem as glamorous as some high-tech fields, but once a lot of people get into those positions in a little cubicle and spend all day looking at a computer screen, it loses its luster. They realize they could be working outside with their hands – they could be doing something they love.”

Emerging Pros Meet-Up

While it may seem like finding young talent for the building products industry is an uphill battle, more resources are being put into place to change that. For the third year, young deck builders were invited to an Emerging Professionals Meet-Up during the DeckExpo in Baltimore. The energy gives hope for the next generation of professional tradesmen.

Read the digital version of Deck Specialist Winter 2018 issue:
https://issuu.com/building-products/docs/deckspecialist_4_2018

J Katwijk and family on EverGrain deck he built
Washington deckbuilder Jason Katwijk with some of his family on a Weathered Wood TAMKO EverGrain deck that he built.

About TAMKO


TAMKO Building Products, Inc. is one of the nation’s largest independent manufacturers of residential and commercial roofing products. For more information about TAMKO, visit our website at www.tamko.com.