While construction workers have been hit hard by the recession, the people who make sure existing homes run smoothly — plumbers, electricians and the like — say they are still finding work, albeit not as much as in the good times.
“I’ve probably dropped about 20 to 30 percent over recent years,” said Cliff Brookes, who runs a plumbing business in Haddonfield, New Jersey. “I’d say 75 percent of my business these days is repair or crisis work, but I guess that is OK. People are still fixing things when the lines clog up or three of the four toilets in the house are stopped up. Plumbers are lucky because people at least have things that need to be fixed all the time.”
While not recession-proof, small-business contractors, electricians, plumbers and even car repair shops seem to be weathering the latest economic downturn somewhat better than other businesses. It may not be time for an employed repairman to strike out on his own, but those already established in business are finding ways to keep afloat.
“We’ve made sure we have done the right things to show customers we were reliable,” said Kimberly Williams, the office manager for Integrity Electric, a six-employee business in San Rafael, California.
Williams said Integrity had made sure its certifications and memberships in business and craft associations were up-to-date. It renegotiated its rates in the Yellow Pages and has worked to make its name pop up as early as possible in online searches in Google, Yelp and other services. She said the company spent US$26,000 in advertising last year, but would cut back considerably now, with small work coming in with regularity.
“We were just big enough and I think smaller shops just had to go out of business when the commercial work slowed down,” she said. “I think we are only US$500 a month slower than before, and with the savings in advertising, we are really about even. We’re happy with that in a recession.”
Eustace Kangaju, director of Temple University’s Small Business Development Center in Philadelphia, said that during recessions, commercial building stops abruptly, which mostly affects large contractors and individual crafts people. Smaller contractors, though, tend not to have that work to begin with, he said.
“Small construction-type businesses may lose house-building or large renovation jobs, but there is still a lot of fixing and repairing to do,” Kangaju said. “I would say city businesses are better off than suburban ones in this kind of economy. Philadelphia, for instance, has older housing stock and things need repairing all the time. Not only are they not building many houses in the suburbs right now, but those that are there are newer and probably in less need of repairs.”
Kangaju said his informal survey found there was actually an upsurge in small-contractor activity in the late spring and early summer, which he attributed to people getting tax refund checks and deciding to get those little annoying things fixed. In any case, he said, if contractors are not greedy and are willing to take those smaller jobs, they can probably weather the remainder of the recession.
That is what Stephen Tomiselli Jr said he had found. He and his father went into a general contracting business in Philadelphia about five years ago when he got out of school and his father decided to go out on his own after a career as a union electrician.
“We’re still doing pretty well. Oh, people aren’t doing the US$50,000 bathroom, but we’ve found people are still wanting to upgrade,” said Tomiselli, who employs five other workmen besides himself and his father. “Maybe the economy isn’t as horrible as they say, but then we work in the city and are comfortable taking little jobs. Maybe if you only do big work, you’re hurting.”
Brookes, the plumber, said his business normally relied on what customers may see as emergencies anyway. So in down times, he is not as likely as the bigger contractors to have a big drop in work.
“People might want to bandage things instead of doing a full repair and replacement, but at least they want me to come in and do something,” he said. “So while it isn’t the greatest right now, I am surviving.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics National Compensation Survey for 2007, the latest year on record, electricians make an average of US$23.26 an hour, plumbers US$23.92 an hour, and automotive repair and maintenance workers US$18.52 an hour.
Those in the auto repair business, Kangaju said, are holding up pretty well during the recession. For one thing, much major auto-body work is covered by insurance, which means it is somewhat insulated from business cycles. Further, as fewer people buy new cars, the age of the cars on the road has risen along with the need for maintenance work, if not repairs.
AAA figures show 30 million roadside assistance calls last year, about the same as in 2007. Research firm R.L. Polk said the average car in the US was 9.2 years old in 2007, while the average truck was 7.3 years old, both records. And a survey by the Automotive Service Association showed that 76 percent of repair shop owners expected more work.
“So far, we haven’t been affected by anything,” said Thomas Marks, owner of Magnolia Auto Body in the southern New Jersey working-class town of Magnolia. “Business is good. People are still getting into accidents. Strangely, we are getting more work on sunny days,” he said. “I think maybe people are daydreaming, or just in a rush to get to work so as not to lose their jobs. It’s a shame, maybe, that that is good for us.”
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