Since 1990, Rito Alvarez has dangled from the tail end of Southern California's depressed economy. He is a man who, with his two sons, uses his hands to build things of cement, a skill in little demand when little is being built.
Now Alvarez finds himself on the leading edge of what will become an economic boomlet as the region rebuilds from last week's earthquake. Even as the ground continues to shift, people are clamoring for his services.
"Before the earthquake, we didn't have a single job," Alvarez said. "Then people I had done work for started to call. Now I have seven jobs already signed up and I have 15 estimates to give before the weekend.
"It is a terrible thing that happened," he said. "But the situation has been so bad for the last four years, this is a blessing for us."
While economists argue whether the rebuilding will prove to be a net gain for the regional economy, it is elevating thousands of carpenters, drywallers, electricians, masons and other skilled workers to the first rank of commercial popularity.
Many of the jobs don't show up on the radar screens of employment statistics, so it's hard to know how many there are. But about 33,000 construction jobs, or one-fourth of the total, have vanished in Los Angeles County alone since 1990. At Laborers Local 300, three of five members are out of work.
Almost apologetically, workers report that suddenly their phones are ringing off the hook, customers are approaching them on the street and they are scrambling for supplies.
"We're going to be very busy," carpet installation contractor Santiago Vanegas said last week as his two workers ripped water-drenched carpeting from a large apartment complex in the San Fernando Valley. "We want to do business, but that's not so important. We want to help."
Little actual rebuilding has begun. With continued aftershocks, the painstaking inspection process and insurance and government paperwork to be overcome, contractors said it will be a month before money begins to flow and large-scale work and significant hiring begin. For construction workers, the most prized jobs will be those rebuilding freeways, because of the pay and the long-term nature of the work.
But cleanup jobs and emergency repairs are making it a go-go time for big and small operators alike--from construction firms and their subcontractors to specialized independent contractors with a couple of work crews to individuals (once called "handymen") with a contractor's license.
Masons such as Alvarez scramble to get from appointment to appointment. One job Alvarez obtained is for Fred Das, whose Sherman Oaks home lost 150 feet of concrete block wall in the earthquake. Das said he settled on Alvarez after two others wanted to do more work than was needed.
At Warner Center, a vast office park in Woodland Hills, Valley Construction Co. took on more than 15 subcontractors to quickly make the office space usable and shore up parking garages, hiring dozens of drywallers, concrete masons and ceiling crews.
With the construction slump, Valley's contracts at Warner Center and other commercial properties "kept us in business," owner John DeWeese said. "We've only got one new building under way. But since the earthquake, we are getting calls on new jobs."
Big concerns such as Valley Construction sent out calls for about 300 carpenters, millwrights, pile drivers and other members of the Carpenters Union and another 200 workers from Laborers Local 300, union officials said. But most such temporary work is non-union and therefore harder to measure.
The labor pool for rebuilding Los Angeles is vast. About 10,000 members of the Carpenters Union alone--or more than 30% of its members in Southern California--are out of work.
And many others who had found non-construction work are rejoining the pool.
Bob Hale, a Santa Monica carpentry contractor, has been driving a taxi in lieu of construction projects.
But since the earthquake, he and his construction partner have begun preparing estimates for repair work in Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades and Malibu.
"Until the ground stops shaking, nobody's going to want to do anything," Hale said. "But it's inevitably going to help us out."