Economy turns construction boss into worker

Truitt Sims' hands speak volumes about the economy.

Callused, dirty, paint-streaked and bandaged. They say this 65-year-old is working harder than ever to survive the toughest work environment he's seen.

Sims had a good gig for 31 years. He supervised heavy construction crews that built roads and sewers for new subdivisions. Two years ago, the company had 25 employees.

Then it all went "poof." He got laid off.

"We were wide open and then it stopped, absolutely stopped; it was like someone flicked a light switch," Sims said. "The owner had to do what he had to do. And he was as good a friend as I've had in my life."

Sims, a compact, bearded man with a gravelly voice, was recounting his career shift recently during a smoke break at a home renovation site in Atlanta. He's no longer the supervisor in a pickup truck with a cellphone: He's a hands-on jack-of-all-trades. He figures he's lost 35 pounds climbing ladders, squeezing into crawl spaces and humping lumber. "You got to keep at it," the Snellville man said. "As long as I'm on this side of the ground, I'm good."

If Sims is glad to have a job, Steve West is glad to have a partner.

West is a skilled carpenter who has renovated homes in Atlanta for nearly 20 years and once did some work for Sims. In December 2007, West was looking for a trustworthy helper and asked Sims whether he knew anyone. Sims, recently unemployed, said: "Hell, I'll do it. I'm not afraid of work."

Their partnership was a combination — young and old, North and South, and shared skills — that has worked for both men as the economy soured. They say it shows that friendship, shared resources, knowledge and job leads go a long way toward survival in hard times.

"We complement each other," West said. "We're watching each other's backs, trying to stay afloat."

Sims has experience in mechanics, heating, plumbing and foundations. West is a craftsman and the outfit's rainmaker, spending countless hours chasing dwindling business.

Sims jokes he's a Southern guy with three last names — Truitt Cheatam Sims Jr. The 47-year-old West still has his Philly bark. Both served in the Air Force.

Asked just how tough business is these days, West smiles and shakes his head. "It's awful, man. It's not a nuclear bomb. But it's a suitcase nuke."

Business is down at least 25 percent, he said, maybe even 50 percent. The recession has hit both new home sales and home renovations hard in metro Atlanta.

New home sales in the Atlanta area were down by half in December, according to a report from SmartNumbers, a Marietta research firm. And a Harvard University study said that in the third quarter of 2008 home renovations dropped 16 percent nationally from the previous year, and it predicted further drops.

Two years ago, West ran a crew of eight workmen, staying busy on big-ticket renovations such as kitchens, master bedroom expansions and fancy bathrooms. It was a juggling act that had him often turning away work.

These days, West runs several hours a day trying to keep a crew of three or four busy. Maybe one week a month they are not.

"Before, you'd bid three jobs [and] you'd get one; now you bid 10 jobs and are waiting for the phone to ring," West said. Sometimes he'll drive by a job he bid for months earlier and sees no sign of work. Homeowners are backing away from renovations or are continually calling contractors to get a bare-bones offer.

"We're taking jobs we wouldn't take before, anything we can do to make money," he said.

Recently, West and Sims worked at a small bungalow in Atlanta's Kirkwood neighborhood where an investor was pushing to finish a renovation to get the house on the market. Instead of installing high-end cabinets or adding a family room, as they might have done two years ago, West and his team were roofing and painting the place — two jobs that until recently were the low-margin bailiwick of immigrant crews.

Illegal immigrant construction workers are a sore spot with West, who sees them as unfair competition.

"You keep hearing that 'Americans don't want to work. Americans don't want to work.' When I hear that I discount anything that person is saying. [Undocumented immigrants] will work for $40 a day," he said. "It's not their fault. The contractors are abusing them. It drives down the wages."

U.S Department of Labor figures for February say the number of construction jobs in metro Atlanta is down 16 percent. Both West and Sims think the number is far greater than that.

West is shocked by the number of people calling for work — former co-workers, acquaintances, friends of friends, guys who just happen by. "People are calling who were gainfully employed a year ago. They call begging. And I've got nothing to give them."

And now there's a stream of new competition: Johnny-come-latelies.

"You have a lot of guys flooding the market. They are out of work and may be handy around the house on weekends. Suddenly they think they're contractors."

West had plans of expanding his business, especially when Sims signed on with him. West had hit a good work rhythm and he finally had someone he could trust to run his crew while he was out drumming up new business. But work was drying up at the same time.

And with tough times comes additional pressure for West while he's out networking because others are depending on him.

"I find myself stressing more than I want to, more than I used to," he said. "You wake up in the middle of the night. You feel responsible for them."

West, who is divorced, said he is glad his children — Matt, who works as a remodeler in Florida, and Addison, who will be a college senior — are grown.

But while West frets about finding new work for his crew, Sims sleeps better these days, even though he's making less than half the $80,000-plus a year he made before the economy tanked.

"There's less stress in my life these days," Sims said. "I was always in the middle [of disputes] with contractors, crews, the county, the owner. It was 24 hours, always there."

Sims' son, Truitt, who worked with him before, now works doing much the same as him. His daughter, Jacqueline, now works with him and West if they need a painter. His wife, Patricia, is a retired rural mail carrier.

Sims was only unemployed once before — during the recession in the mid-1970s. People need to keep their options open and their pride in check, he said.

"You have to keep it in your mind you'll never be without a job," he said. "You can work at Wal-Mart. You can dig a ditch. It may not pay much. It may not be pretty."