Every month, they gather around a conference table in the Roseville offices of the North State Building Industry Association. These mostly middle-age men and women are officially called "members in transition," which is a polite way of saying they are out of work.
They are land planners, construction managers, engineers, brokers, marketing specialists and others all white-collar casualties of the massive job shedding in Sacramento's construction industry after the 2008 crash.
For the last four years, they've endured the relentlessly grim prognosis for their livelihoods. But these days, talk around the table is sounding more optimistic. Their industry is adding jobs again, albeit slowly, as the real estate market recovers and new home building resumes.
"I think we've hit the bottom and we're on our way back up," said Jerry Dover, owner of Dover Construction Inc., a former subdivision and custom home builder in El Dorado Hills, who hasn't built a new house since June 2006.
For the last few years, he has survived via small jobs: remodeling a dental building, managing subdivision warranty work and doing a Bay Area home remodel.
Now, Dover, 65, is seeing encouraging signs: New and existing home sales are up; foreclosures and short sales are down. For the first time in five years, he says, he's "contemplating" building a house to sell.
"Absolutely. There's no question we're at a turning point," said Greg Paquin, a building industry analyst who heads the Gregory Group in Folsom. "At the beginning of the year, we noticed a real change, but everyone wanted to make sure it's sustainable. Through three quarters, it appears it is."
According to the California Building Industry Association, construction starts statewide sank to an all-time record low in 2011 fewer than 50,000 new homes and apartments statewide but are "incrementally" better in 2012.
Hiring is following suit.
Locally, in the four-county region of El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Yolo, construction employment has risen 24.3 percent over the summer months.
That's heartening news for construction industry veterans such as Bill Vandegriff, who are itching to get back to what, for many, is the only career they've known.
Vandegriff, a former sales and marketing manager with Old Republic Title, was laid off in May 2011 after 14 years. Before that, he had spent another 10 years at Placer Title.
"I'm trying to reinvent myself. I'm too young to retire," said the 60-year-old, who has stayed afloat by living off rental income, buying and "flipping" foreclosed properties and helping a friend assemble subdivision maps for a small housing project in Ohio.
He also has focused more volunteer time on his board seat with the El Dorado Community Services District, where he spearheaded construction of a single basketball court for a teen center. The low bidder on that job? Dover, the former subdivision builder.
"There's a lot of optimism out there around the market, but it's really fragile," Vandegriff said. "There are a lot of people who've been laid off a lot longer than I have."
Gossip and job tips
The BIA's support group started in 2008, just as home building skidded to a halt. It was intended as a short-term self-help group for out-of-work construction professionals in Northern California.
Back then, when the recession was expected to be an 18-to-24-month slump, the idea was to "form a club of people who were transitionally looking for work and didn't want to leave the (Sacramento) area," said Mike Winn, president and CEO of the California Building Industry Association. Instead, "it turned out to be a much uglier and deeper recession."
For the past four years, the Roseville meetings have been part therapy, part motivational, drawing about 15 or 20 people each month. It's a place to brush up social media skills, revise résumés, listen to economists and housing industry speakers. Members share job leads and industry gossip.
Last month, one member announced he had taken a job, as a consultant working from home. Another pointed to new job listings for a construction manager and field assistants by Lennar Homes, a national home builder that's among the few reviving their Sacramento- area business.
Eric Borsting, a Stockton resident laid off in 2009 after nearly 40 years doing energy consulting and architectural planning for builders such as Pardee Homes, says whenever someone in the group lands a job, "We do a high-five. It's a big morale booster when someone graduates."
Six pockets of California the Bay Area, San Jose, Silicon Valley, northern Los Angeles (Santa Clarita Valley), Orange County and San Diego show "obvious signs" of recovery: increases in building permits, home starts and construction hiring, Winn said.
Sacramento will take longer to revive, he said, partly because residential building fees attached to raw land are higher here than in other parts of the state.
A 'lost generation'
When rehiring does ramp up, no one is predicting it will return to the boomtown levels of eight years ago. As so many companies drastically downsized during the recession, their skeletal staffs learned to multi-task and take on added job responsibilities.
"There's a conservative, slightly shell-shocked sense by a lot of employers about how big their team needs to be. They've been getting by with fewer people and a more versatile group," said Winn, who held executive jobs with his family's Winncrest Homes later bought out by Lennar and then with Reynen & Bardis.
In an era of limited job opportunities, age could be an asset. That's because in California's building industry, many younger professionals who would otherwise compete with older workers have left the field, Winn said.
The real estate collapse, he said, was "a tsunami that took out not only senior management but a whole generation of middle managers, folks in their 30s and 40s who would've been the next generation in California home building."
That could mean a hiring advantage for home `building veterans, many of whom have waited out the downturn when their younger counterparts couldn't afford to.
"There's nothing that replaces experience. It's an edge," said Frances Knight, a former land acquisitions vice president with K. Hovnanian Homes, who began attending the BIA support group after a recent layoff. "If you've gone through the battles in the planning process, it makes a big difference."
As she and others in the group wait for new employers to tap their expertise, they part ways each month with this send-off: "Hope I don't see you next month."