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Material Shortages, Price Volatility and Lack of Workforce Hurting One of America’s Largest Sectors

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The National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA) is a membership driven advocacy organization, working in the interests of the roofing industry in America. The NRCA engages in advocacy work at different levels for roofing contractors and the broader roofing industry at large by engaging with building codes, engaging with ASTM about standards for roofing materials, engaging with the federal government and government agencies that regulate roofing, while also ensuring the rule book that contractors must follow is written in a manner fair to both the contractors and consumer. It also advocates before the insurance industry – a large purchaser of roofing but also a large provider of insurance for the industry. Essentially, the NRCA advocates for roofing contractors at every place they interface throughout the economy. It has three full-time lobbyists in DC who work with the federal agencies and administration to keep them aware of what is happening in the industry.

When speaking to Reid Ribble, CEO of the NRCA, it is apparent that for the roofing industry it has been a tough couple of years. The end of the COVID ERA appears to be a mystery, with no one knowing when this is going to end. Ribble seems confident about a “hybrid” version of business, one including both face-to-face consumer relations and video conferencing. Pre-pandemic, the NRCA would hold training and conferences in person, meaning the association was not prepared for a sudden move to a virtual space. Reid explained that video conferencing “allows us to have a certain level of connectedness that we otherwise would not have had,” one allowing us to read tone and body language, two incredibly important aspects of communication. Despite this, according to Ribble, there is a real desire for consumers to be back in touch face to face, “where the humanity of what we do and who we are begins to reconnect.” For roofing contractors everything changed. Estimating was no longer tactile and with the onset of COVID, it went digital. Worryingly, this poses risks. Ribble explained that many customers will say “I buy from people, not businesses” – if you take the people out of that equation, you risk commoditising an entire industry.

Though COVID has inevitably caused issues throughout every level of society, roofing is an industry that will last – every citizen needs protection and shelter, meaning that no matter what is going on in the wider world, there will always be a need for it. The NRCA has 65 domestic affiliates – virtually every state has an affiliate roofing contractor organization. The NRCA often participates in affiliate meetings and provides worker training and certificates; pre-pandemic this proved to be quite expensive but the move to an online space has saved members a lot of money and time. Ribble expects the NRCA to continue with virtual events, while also including in-person events. 

The NRCA is focused on helping the industry rebound, though it hasn’t been damaged much by COVID due to stimulus from the government being pushed into the system. The industry has been living through a period of high demand – this is complicated, however, by a serious material shortage, coupled with extreme price volatility expected to last well into 2022 which leads to, as Ribble puts it, “too many dollars chasing too few goods.” Ribble anticipates price volatility to be part of the paradigm leading out of the pandemic – it used to be a case where you could give a client a fixed total price on a roof (including the cost of materials and labor) but that’s not possible today. Across the entire supply chain, price volatility is too great. Distributors and manufacturers of materials are not quoting projects until the project is ready to ship, because the price could change too much in the time between ordering and shipping, with clients being told: “the price will be whatever the price is when we ship it”. The NRCA is working hard to inform their members of their rights and give them all the information needed to deal with the problem of price volatility and supply shortages, with an entire webpage set up on its website devoted to these matters, which includes language for contractors to put into their contracts to protect them and the consumer. Ribble explains that enhancing communication and ensuring everyone knows what is happening is the best way to protect everyone, with the NRCA at the forefront of that communication. The issue of material shortages and price volatility was not a direct result of the pandemic, with COVID acting merely as a catalyst – it had been coming for a long time due to bad policy at federal level on transport and infrastructure, according to Ribble. Ribble explained that the roads have long been inadequate for the level of truck traffic on them, an issue that needed to be addressed 25 years ago because this date, unfortunately, was predictable.

“The NRCA is working hard to inform their members of their rights and give them all the information needed to deal with the problem of price volatility and supply shortages.”

Through the Pandemic the NRCA has engaged more with state governments across the country to provide support to their affiliates by explaining to local government leaders what an essential service meant. It was imperative to stress that if roofing was not considered essential and someone’s roof was leaking but couldn’t be fixed it could lead to all sorts of health problems due to the onset of mould. 

The NRCA held their long-running legal conference virtually for a second year in 2021. Previously, companies may have chosen to send one representative to save costs, but the information given out at the conference is critically important to members from many divisions within a company – when held virtually, representatives from each sector within the company could attend meaning the reach increased exponentially. Ribble expects there to be a mix of virtual and in-person conferences in the future.

The NRCA sponsors Informa’s International Roofing Expo and holds its annual convention concurrently with the event. Ribble describes this industry gathering as “a must go to event if active in the roofing industry.” While it was pushed back to August last year, the next one will be held in the first two months of 2022 in New Orleans where the NRCA will be among hundreds of exhibitors, ready to spread information that is essential to a healthy roofing industry.

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In the future, the NRCA’s main priority is to help the industry navigate the supply chain. Ribble feels the biggest threat to the roofing industry is the loss of workforce in the US – down to the fact that the population is ageing, birth rates are declining, millions of people have retired early (who may have gone on to work another 10 years) during the pandemic, along with a restrictive immigration policy. As Ribble puts it, it’s a “perfect storm for a workers shortage, unlike anything we have seen.” In 2021, for every unemployed American there are 1.4 jobs – meaning there are 40% more jobs than there are workers to fill them.

Everything the NRCA does is to professionalize the work that the roofers themselves do, through providing professional certificates for them which would allow them to earn more money. The NRCA wants to ensure its training is the best in the world and on par with every other trade so that “when young people are looking at a career in construction, they come to us first” according to Ribble. Ribble explains that this requires a change in the way the industry thinks about things and how employers invest in people – what they are willing to pay them, benefit structures, how they will certify and treat them once they are professional – this, according to Ribble, will be the future of the industry. “Focusing on people” will be the key to long-lasting success – “It will always be people. Technology will make lives easier and more efficient for those people, but the people will still have to do something. In roofing, it will still take people to put components together – that human relationship and how you treat each other and your employees and how you care about the health and wellbeing of them and their family all really matter” according to Ribble. 

The NRCA puts so much emphasis on worker safety – as Ribble explained it is not about meeting government regulations, it is about making sure roofing company owners never have to call someone’s family and tell them that a worker isn’t coming home today.

“If we become good employers, we will have good employees”.

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