Architectural Millwork Installer Compensation

Owners and employees discuss the wages installers make, and the factors that affect the value of labor. November 11, 2005

I live in southern California, Orange County to be exact. I have about 25 years experience in all phases of cabinet and finish carpentry, and consider myself a perfectionist. Most of the work I do is high end. I'm tired of working for myself, so I'm now looking for employment. I have filled out applications and faxed resumes. Most are impressed, but after they learn I want $30 an hour plus travel expense, I never get a call back. Most are architectural millwork companies. It appears they are looking for cheap labor to install their high dollar projects, such as $5000+ door sets. Real estate in Orange County is one of the highest in the country. I don't think what I'm asking is out of line, do you?

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor T:
The number one fear of all manufacturers is that the employees will want more money. Compared to what the employers pay for near sweatshop labor in third world countries, this is easily understood. Have you considered installs? The wages are generally higher than the cabinetmakers.

From the original questioner:
Installations is actually what I'm looking to do. I received a couple job offers for $25 hourly, but I feel I'm worth more, especially for this area.

From contributor P:
Here in the Northeast, I get $25 for basic work such as interior rough framing and sheetrocking. I get approximately $300 to $400 a day for cabinet and trim installs. I'm also self employed. But a person of your experience should be getting better than $25/hour. That's an insult.

From contributor T:
Take the $25 and get out there working. The contractors will see your work and you will be in demand to do extra work for them and your value will grow fast. Especially if you are top notch. You will get what you want, but you have to get out there and get that reputation. Keep a cool head and do your best. There is a lot of work out there.

From contributor R:
A note from a business owner's perspective: If I were to hire an employee and pay benefits at $30.00, I'd have to bill that employee's time at $89.00/hour to make money. If I bid my work with that labor rate, I'd get very few jobs in my market. I pay my top installers about $19 with full benefits including a vehicle and tools, and they frequently get to work on prevailing wage jobs at $24-25/hour. I would have to move into a much higher end market (which doesn't currently exist in my area) in order to pay significantly higher installation wages. On the other hand, we pay between $35 and $40 per hour to contract installers, who come with their own tools, truck, license and insurance. I am guessing that these contractors make more than this on a good job, if their estimating is good.

From contributor A:
I work in Sonoma and Marin counties, both of which are equivalent in real estate costs to Orange county. (Ah, but quality of life? No comparison!) I'm at $72/hr, self-employed, no additional benefits, in the field. My helper (three years with me, and a great extra pair of hands, careful and understanding of the standards we hew to, but doesn't work unsupervised, rarely cuts) is at $22/hr base, $30 with employer burden, billed at $40. We don't add for truck costs or overhead/profit for installation work, but have a fairly hefty markup in our shop rates to compensate. We install our own stuff only, and we don't do shop work to be installed by others.

In our area, I'd be thrilled to get a capable, efficient non-employee installer, with truck and tools, in the $60-$65/hr range, assuming a license and liability insurance.

From the original questioner:
The response I've been getting from companies is that the max they are willing to pay is $25 hourly, which is decent if they pay for my gas, wear and tear on my vehicle and use of my tools. Most don't want to pay any of this, or provide a vehicle, not to mention auto insurance. They expect you to pay for it - gas alone, for one day, is $30-$40, not to mention insurance. I would be lucky to net $120 a day after taxes. The average rent for a home in O.C. is $2000 - doesn't leave much for anything else.

The profit margin for these companies is very well over 100%, and that's taking into account them providing benefits. Just a low end door install from Home Depot is $500, labor only! This would take me about 2 to 3 hours… Let's see, they get $500, I get $75... think I'll stay self-employed for a while longer.

From contributor J:
30 dollars a day in gas?! What are you driving, a tank? That is way too much money being poured out the exhaust. Most companies pay by the mileage and the ones I know are supposed to supply equipment as well. Heck, the way they have you set up is like working on a 25 dollar an hour bid - great for the owners, but not so good for the worker!

From contributor T:
The top installers in the Miami area sub out at $60 an hour and they pay their installers $35 hour. That seems to me to be pretty good, but their work is outstanding. If you can do quality touch-ups, then you are even more valuable. I have a specialist friend/painter who can really save you in a bad situation. It just doesn't come cheap at that level of service.

From contributor D:
If you think that a company just pockets the 500 and gets away with only paying you 75, then you need a serious reality check. Labor burden, benefits, and 401K on top of your wages is not the only astronomical expense that we employers have to pay. There's a butt load of other overhead expenses that have to be paid for, as well. Not to mention the significant amount of risk that we take when we sign those contracts. When you are an employee, you don't have to worry about getting sued for a leaky door, etc. And here's another thing. An employee has to put out enough work to pay for all the things that I've mentioned, plus some kind of profit to make himself valuable to my company.

That said, I would have no problem paying an employee 40 bones an hour. If he's pulling his weight, I'll treat him like gold. However, I won't start a carpenter out at 40. If you start on with a new company, you have to expect to prove yourself before they can really pay you what you're worth. So don't go around feeling like everyone wants to stick you in a sweatshop. I really think that most employers sincerely want to treat their employees right. I know I do.

From the original questioner:
It's almost a tank! I drive a Chevy 1 ton dually, gets about 8-10 mpg. It's $2.25 a gallon, 60 bucks a fillup, and I use a little over half a tank per day.

I worked for a furniture restoration company for a few years and learned a lot as far as touchup. Customers are often surprised when they see me adding grain to the nail holes after they are filled.

From contributor S:
The companies that don't pay for vehicle cost and expect the worker to pay are the companies you don't want to work for. This should be a clear signal of what kind of outfit they are. Cheap comes to mind. I own a millwork shop in San Jose. My profit margin is wide and I pay my installers 35+ with benefits. They are issued a company truck, given a gas card and they take the vehicle home, just like any plumber or electrician. Only thing I don't compensate for is tools. These guys are quality installers and I'm damn lucky to have them.

From contributor G:
Have you ever thought of piece work? A lot of companies like to offer piece work because they know their bottom line labor cost right from the get go. You can examine the price before you start and you can be on their payroll instead of your own. Just a thought.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor C:
I have worked as a high end trim carpenter with 25 years experience. I have worked in the central Florida area for the last 10 years and started out at 8.00/hour and now make 22.00/hour with my current employer which is the highest rate I have ever seen anyone pay a finish carpenter in this area.

I do not get paid overtime wages if I work over 40 hours in a week and I also do not get paid travel expenses (fuel or miles). I do not have any kind of benefits or retirement packages and I do not get any bonuses of any kind for any reason. I am an employee as the builders in this area are shying away from subs using workman’s comp exemption for liability reasons.

I have my own truck my own tools and equipment, and have to pull my employers teeth just to get him to pay for nails. Being in this area I have no lack of high end work. I have over 10 developments in a 30 mile radius that I can work at with no house less than 2 million dollars.