Not your father's roofing industry

A new generation of roofing contractors shares its hopes and challenges

According to, more than 10,000 baby boomers are retiring each day in the U.S., signaling a significant shift in the working world.

Additionally, shares that 83 percent of job seekers currently use smartphones to look for job openings, and 45 percent of active candidates have applied for jobs on mobile sites; 58 percent of people are more likely to want to work at a company that is actively involved in social media; and millennials (defined as the generation born in the 1980s or 1990s) will hold 27 percent of management positions in the U.S. this year. The way we do business is changing rapidly.

The roofing industry is not immune to these changes, and it continues to be pushed to evolve and keep up with a fast-paced world.

As the roofing industry's new generation of roofing contractors has stepped into the roles held by previous leaders, they have needed to make changes and, at times, offer different views than those of their predecessors.

A learning experience

Monica Cameron's company is a perfect example of the shift in leadership from the older generation to the younger generation. After her father unexpectedly passed away, Cameron, vice president of Diamond Roofing, Manhattan, Kan., and other young Diamond Roofing leaders had to step forward; the company's four executives are age 43 and younger.

"With no exit strategy in place and an outdated succession plan, the next generation put on its boots and went to work to fill the leadership gap," Cameron says. "We recognized no one person could replace our patriarch's value in the company, and human assets truly are the glue that holds all other assets together. Our situation forced us to think strategically by envisioning what we as the next generation wanted for our future and then set forth a plan for achievement."

Diamond Roofing sought professional assistance to help with the transition.

"We solicited the services of Beacon Exit Planning & Succession to help navigate the transition and chart a course for the future," Cameron says. "Unable to be fully groomed as a successor by my father, I was able to take advantage of NRCA's Future Executives Institute program to help orchestrate a successful leadership transition."

Other young roofing contractors have turned to NRCA's Future Executives Institute (FEI) and Executive Management Institute (EMI) as resources and learning experiences.

"My involvement with the FEI and EMI programs definitely has affected our company," says J.J. Smithey, president of Frost Roofing Inc., Wapakoneta, Ohio. "The NRCA staff and fellow contractors have been indispensable resources. There always is someone who has encountered a similar human resources issue, managed a project with the same obstacles or can relate to the pressures a roofing contractor faces."

Kelly Braddy Van Winkle, vice president of contracts for King of Texas Roofing Co. LP, Grand Prairie, says working on NRCA committees has been valuable.

"My involvement with NRCA committees during the past several years has shown me that many of my fellow contractors are facing similar issues within the industry," she says. "It highlights to me the importance of association members working together to bring about positive change for the industry."

As these younger professionals have stepped into leadership roles with optimism and enthusiasm, their companies have had to evolve as the industry changes.

"We have become more focused on doing what we are good at and choosing to not do the things that we are not good at," says Geoff Mitchell, CEO of Mid-South Roof Systems, Atlanta. "This has empowered us with a better sense of our identity, as well as helped us be more effective."

Brave new world

One of the most dramatic changes companies have had to adapt to is technology.

"I began working in the roofing industry after the fax machine had become a common tool but before computers had really been embraced in the workplace," Mitchell says. "The amount of business we can do today with our tools is astounding compared to what could be accomplished with calculators and fax machines."

These tools strongly have affected efficiency for roofing contractors.

"Contractors have information available to them almost instantaneously," Smithey says. "We have the ability to communicate in various ways among fellow contractors and relay what works in an expedited manner."

Brad Sutter, executive vice president of Sutter Roofing Co., Sarasota, Fla., says his company is trying to move away from paper as much as possible.

"We are implementing new mobile technologies to help us track field labor and work completed more accurately and easily," Sutter says. "There also is an ongoing initiative to cut the amount of paperwork handled in all areas. We are trying to move away from paper to more electronic sharing, tracking and information storage."

Van Winkle says apps have changed how her company functions.

"Since I started in the roofing industry, I have noticed the increasing use and popularity of apps," she says. "These include payroll/time-keeping apps, estimating programs and material supplier apps, which allow greater and easier access to technical information. We are using some of these applications."

Sutter agrees, saying the use of mobile devices is key to the industry's future.

"There will continue to be growth in the number of apps and other services accessed from mobile locations," he says. "This will change the skill set necessary for field foremen, supervisors and management as the ability to complete purchasing, scheduling and remote tracking of job progress is driven down into organizations.

"Some of the real game changers have been aerial imaging and measurement services, roofing-specific operation and estimating software, and especially online or cloud-based operational platforms and service tracking," Sutter continues.

However, despite the benefits, technology poses some challenges for the industry.

"It's difficult and costly to implement several different technologies that don't integrate well with one another," Cameron says. "The industry greatly could benefit from a single technology that streamlines more aspects of the business."

Additionally, as technology changes quickly, some generational differences may intimidate employees. Smithey says communication is key when training employees regarding technology.

"There is a stronger emphasis on computer and communication skills," Smithey says. "The industry has evolved via technology, and having a teammate who shies away from using a smartphone or different types of software is a barrier. Communication is key with generational gaps. How we communicate when trying to motivate, discipline or train one generation compared with another is different."

Smithey says millennials often are motivated by repeated reinforcement and positive interactions while some members of the older generations are motivated by having more independence and seniority among co-workers. However, he says pairing two different generations as a team can be rewarding.

"The millennial, who is the techie, does the data entry while the baby boomer, who is the technician, provides support with his or her roofing expertise," Smithey says. "This partnership fosters a team environment where both members are valued."

Mitchell emphasizes the importance of adapting with the changes.

"The basic idea of roofing is unchanged. But the amount of work we can accomplish in a day and the speed of business have changed dramatically," Mitchell says. "These changes have left some people behind while contractors who were able to flex with the changes have thrived."

Social media also has become a factor.

"Social media has been a real game changer for our company because it provides a platform to recruit millennials and recognize our current employees daily, as well as brand our company as working professionals in our local communities," Cameron says.

Sutter's company also sees value in using social media.

"We try to maintain a balance between keeping our customers and associates informed about our current events and news versus bombarding them with useless information," he says. "It's a fast, easy way to get good news and accomplishments out in the public domain quickly and easily."

Approaching safety

In addition to technological advances, approaches to safety have changed.

"Great companies have always been concerned about the safety of their employees regardless of the regulations,"

Mitchell says. "This has evolved to a broader awareness in the industry because of regulations standardizing the approach to safety. I think the danger here is that a company is implementing safe work practices because they have to as opposed to believing in a safety culture."

Van Winkle says the younger generation is more enthusiastic about new approaches to safety.

"In the field, we are investing in training for young foremen and up-and-coming potential leaders," she says. "We have created a sophisticated safety program the younger generation is embracing—probably more so than the previous generation.

"Younger workers place more emphasis on safety and are more on board with the goals and objectives of our safety program," she continues. "They pay more attention to the increased education and training being provided."

Sutter agrees the new generation has a more positive attitude toward safety.

"For the past generation, safety often was viewed as an afterthought or nonessential part of getting the job done," he says. "It has become the No. 1 concern for field supervisors and managers. Safety is one of the first areas covered in all job planning and preproduction meetings. Site-specific safety plans are becoming the norm.

"The younger generation seems to embrace the challenge of keeping workers safe," he continues. "It's not viewed as a problem or hassle but a primary function of doing the job."

Smithey says safety is his company's top priority, and projects revolve around safety plans.

"Compared with the previous generation, we address safety and risk differently," he says. "Safety is budgeted when bidding a project—it is part of our culture. We review and negotiate all contracts with other contractors and customers. It isn't possible to sign a contract that is one-sided and pretend everyone is looking out for each other's best interest."


It seems inevitable that as the industry has changed, leadership style also has changed, evolving into a strategy that often is more team-centered.

"My leadership style is much more collaborative with a focus on results," Mitchell says. "I am more numbers-oriented and less entrepreneurial. I like to work in a team structure, and it is exciting when everyone is able to do what they do best."

Cameron agrees: "Our leadership style is more team-based. The industry may not always recognize the merit in this approach, but it has been the only way we've been able to leverage our individual skills and knowledge."

Van Winkle says she also approaches leadership differently.

"I am putting more focus on education and training for field workers, especially leadership training for foremen," she says. "My leadership style in my view is definitely different from the previous generations. I am more receptive to suggestions and input from the field. I try to make a point to truly get to know the field workers. I seek input from team members more often."

Van Winkle also says being a woman and leader in the industry is viewed differently than in the past.

"Being a female leader in the previous generation's roofing industry might have been somewhat problematic," she says. "However, in the current industry, many female leaders often have an advantage. Many women can be detail-oriented, innovative problem solvers and are good at nurturing important relationships, such as employer-employee relationships and relationships with general contractors and building owners."

Sutter says his personal leadership style is more subtle than past generations.

"I'm not a beat-you-over-the-head type of person," he says. "I've gotten a lot better at using direct and straight talk to get my point across and make sure I'm understood, but I still feel like I have room for improvement."

Sutter says roofing contractors have had to learn to do business in a more formal way.

"The industry and the customers we want to do business with have become more sophisticated," Sutter says. "We have had to raise our level of competency in many areas. This is true in the effort to produce sales and increase revenue, as well as the planning and execution of work.

"We have been forced to be much more formal in our policies and procedures," he continues. "Customers frequently want to know more about how you run your business before they decide to do business with you."

Cameron says her branch office has no baby boomers left in the office; 14 percent of workers are Generation X and 86 percent are millennials.

"Our company already has experienced the shift from boomers to Generation X and millennials," she says. "However, we lack experience. Therefore, we focus most of our efforts on training and developing our employees and ourselves as leaders. Other steps we've taken include creating opportunities to bond; setting clear expectations; using technology and being open to virtual work environments; offering flexible work arrangements; frequent interaction with regular feedback; and having a little fun."

Conflict and communication

Despite adapting leadership styles to fit the changing industry, overseeing a team that includes established employees and inexperienced employees still can be challenging.

"There sometimes is conflict among team members," Smithey says. "Seasoned workers become frustrated with inexperienced laborers, and members of the new workforce feel unappreciated by their foremen—it isn't a new dilemma. Often, it is a misunderstanding of expectations or communication that can be resolved with discussion or additional training."

Van Winkle says her company has experienced conflict between new workers and more established workers—especially between first-generation and second-generation Latinos.

"The older generation often speaks only Spanish and values education, training and safety less," she says. "The newer generation tends to place more of a priority on safety and is more agreeable about receiving training. The newer employees also bring new ideas to the table often, which upsets workers whose ways of doing things are set in stone."

Sutter says conflict between the generations often stems from communication issues.

"Most often it's a clash of styles and communication methods," he says. "Of course, sometimes it comes down to a difference of approach or plan, but that happens. The older generation expected anyone working for them to do what they were told. Younger workers seem to appreciate being part of the plan formulation and communication earlier in the process. That requires more listening skills and front-end communication. Not everyone is suited for this style, so it may require training or skill development.

"The techniques and tactics used by the baby boomer generation do not translate well to millennials," he continues. "We are moving from the command and control style that came from the World War II generation to a more collaborative, inclusive structure."

Communication among leaders also has changed with the newer generation.

"Leaders are much more willing to engage in open, honest communication about the issues and successes in the industry and their businesses," Sutter says. "There seems to have been a shift during the past decade where secrecy and closely held information have given way to better exchanges, which has benefited all involved and the industry as a whole."

In addition, Sutter says workplace expectations have changed for everyone since younger workers began entering the industry.

"Everyone is being asked to do more, and that's not limited to our industry," Sutter says. "I attribute the change to the economic downturn we all experienced in 2008. As firms cut costs and staff to remain viable, it was 'all hands on deck.' No one was surprised to be asked to handle something they might not have done before. As younger workers entered the industry during this time period, that's all they know. You do what you have to do to stay employed."

However, some issues can arise when hiring the younger generation.

"The younger generation of workers entering the roofing industry does not seem as industrious or loyal to their employers," Cameron says. "They demand more attention and require more information and guidance, as well as more wages for work."

The new generation also at times can expect things to come too easily.

"We have observed multiple members of the new workforce not being accustomed to the idea of getting an opportunity, earning a promotion and advancing via hard work but instead expecting to be paid the same as those who have worked hard for their livelihood," Smithey says.

But in the end, whether handling established or inexperienced workers, companies should strive to offer the type of environment that will attract good workers.

"At the end of the day, people want to feel they are making a difference," Mitchell says. "If you can provide an environment where people are part of a team, you will attract and keep good people regardless of their ages."

A new image

Attracting and keeping good people is an issue with which the industry has been struggling.

According to, the U.S. is experiencing the "job hopper era." Millennial workers stay with a company for just two years on average before leaving. And the roofing industry experiences problems not only keeping workers but finding them.

Mitchell suggests one important factor that could help resolve this issue: "One of the key things the roofing industry has to do is create a standard career path for field workers. We need to show there is a future in learning the trade. We can do this as individual companies or as an industry. It would be most effective to do it as a group and at the same time raise the level of prestige associated with being a roofing worker."

The image of the roofing industry is a significant obstacle.

"I think we have the opportunity to define the roofing industry in better terms than it has been in the past," Mitchell says. "It is imperative we begin to do this as an industry and as companies so we can attract people. At this point, the public perception is so low, we have nowhere to go but up."

Van Winkle agrees: "Roofing contractors have to start attracting workers through the benefit of high-quality training programs and education, as well as demonstrate that construction isn't a dead-end street or a summer job. There can be lifetime careers and opportunities for advancement."

Sutter says it is important to find people who enjoy the type of work the industry offers.

"Our industry needs to do a better job identifying workers who enjoy the craft, opportunities and technical aspects inherent to the work we do," he says. "Only by increasing the roles and responsibilities of those productive people can we grow the base of the next generation coming behind them."

He also believes the desired skills for the roofing industry have moved beyond purely physical labor.

"The positions in our industry are becoming more technical and knowledge-based," Sutter says. "As technologies are adapted, the skill sets of workers entering the industry will need to change. We will need better-educated and technologically literate individuals at the most basic levels and positions.

"The trades and manufacturing industries have been the backbone of the U.S. for decades, but the promotion of them as viable employment and career tracks has fallen out of favor with the academic and educational communities," he continues. "We can't position our industry as a last resort to young workers and be successful."

But when recruiting, what works for one company may not work for another.

"We all need to realize there is no 'secret sauce' when it comes to recruiting," Smithey says. "What works for one contractor in his territory may not be compatible for another.

"Our recruiting efforts include speaking at high schools and vocational schools about a career in the roofing industry and advertising on social media platforms," he continues. "Not every young person finishing his or her high school education is suited for college, and they are not aware the roofing industry is a viable, profitable career choice."

Sutter works on offering incentives and promotions that would appeal to a prospective worker.

"At our company, we are developing in-house training and incentive programs to help position us as the employer of choice among roofing workers in the areas where we operate," Sutter says. "We encourage our managers and field supervisors to identify high performers early for promotion to areas of greater responsibility on their crew or for possible promotion to the next level."

Cameron focuses on the type of environment her company offers employees: "We've implemented human resource initiatives tailored to attract and retain employees that culturally fit into our organization; established a 90-day onboarding and orientation process for new hires to make sure our values align; invested in training and development for employees at all levels; instituted a formal employee performance review program; and established career-development plans for key employees at various levels throughout the organization."

Cameron offers another potential recruiting method.

"The industry should promote and encourage the acceptance of the female workforce," she says. "Although roofing is not a traditional industry for women, there are many capable female workers who can work beside men to reduce the labor shortage."

Whatever steps may be taken to battle the labor shortage, Sutter says they need to be taken soon.

"In a short time, we are not going to have enough labor available to complete the work necessary," he says. "Without a shift in technical educational offerings, existing worker training and comprehensive immigration reform, the industry will struggle to staff itself adequately. The industry needs to support and embrace change on all three fronts because we will not be successful if only one area is addressed."

Finding success

Looking to the future, the new generation of roofing contractors is trying to define the key to staying successful in an ever-changing industry.

"There are two prongs to being a successful roofing contractor," Mitchell says. "The first is that this is a people-oriented business. Without the people who make the company what it is, it would not exist. We are not an assembly line stamping out products. Having a team of people who are pulling in the same direction is critically important. The second part is finding out what you are good at and focusing on that."

Van Winkle believes knowledge is a significant survival skill.

"Knowing how to operate wisely during tough economic times and having the resources to make it through those times is key to success," she says.

Sutter attributes success to honesty and integrity.

"Do what you say you are going to do, and be 100 percent truthful in your words and dealings with others," he says. "It doesn't have to be more complicated than that."

Cameron believes incorporating some new characteristics into industry leadership will lead to success.

"The roofing industry is full of dominant personalities who are direct, results-oriented, firm, strong-willed and sometimes forceful," Cameron says. "Additionally, the industry often favors people who are conscientiously systematic, analytical and precise. However, leaders who use the power of influence through enthusiasm and optimism while maintaining humility and tactfulness are rare. As an industry, we would be wise to tap into some of these leadership skills that build a more diverse workforce and provide fertile ground for collaboration with the next generation."

Krista Berns is Professional Roofing's director of online communications.


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