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Not so fast: Washington’s manufactured home industry is not dying

A typical manufactured home in Washington state. (Northwest Housing Association)

Rumors of its death has been greatly exaggerated. That’s essentially the message from Washington’s mobile home industry after a recently-released study argued that the job of “manufactured building and mobile home installer” has declined the most in the state, to just a handful.

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“Demand for installers is very high right now,” said Erlich Matthew with Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. “In fact, the number of manufactured homes brought into the state has increased in the realm of 300 percent – from about 550 in 2012, to 1,600 last year (we know this from a federal report we receive). In some cases, manufactured homes waiting to be installed can have some problems if not temporarily put on blocks.”

After CommercialCafe released its study — and we ran a blog post on its assessment — Washington officials from the mobile home industry and the state’s Labor and Industry department began calling foul. CommercialCafe stated that there was an 88 percent decrease in manufactured building and mobile home installers between 2009 and 2018 — from 260 workers to just 30.

“Where did they get that information?” questioned John McMillan, who handles the licensing of mobile home installers with L&I. “I’ve been managing the program for 12 years and I’ve kept pretty good detailed information on it. I have pretty good first hand knowledge.”

McMillan argues that the idea that there are 30 manufactured home installers in Washington is far off.

CommercialCafe also spoke to the likelihood that automation was responsible for much of this decline — only 18 percent.

“As for the claim of automation, none of us can imagine what in this process they could possibly assume was being automated,” said Joan Brown with the Northwest Housing Association, which represents the industry in Washington. “There were also questions as to whether or not they were looking at other facets of the industry, but nothing surfaced as logical in our minds.”

“It is nice to be recognized as an important source of affordable housing,” Brown said. “But the down side of a statistic like this is that it suggests a dying industry and one that might not be able to service the needs of its customers.”

Labor and Industries backs up this argument. L&I handles the licensing process for certified mobile home installers. Such installers have to be approved by the state, and work includes setup and assembly, constructing the foundation, skirting, some piping an plumbing related to the structure, among other construction jobs. To be certified as a manufactured home installer in Washington, a person has to take a 10-hour training course and pass a certification exam. It has to be renewed after three years. And to even do any of that, a person has to have already had at least six months of hands-on experience under the supervision of a certified installer.

According to numbers provided by L&I:

  • In 2007, there were 875 in the licensed installer program.
  • When the 2008 recession hit, the numbers took a hit and dropped to 375.
  • Currently there are about 400 licensed installers in Washington.
  • During this same time frame, registered contractors who also work in the field went from around 65,000 to nearly 40,000.

Which, no matter how you look at it, is far from the 30-installer number that CommercialCafe put out. McMillan notes that there is a wealth of manufactured home factories throughout the Northwest — five in Oregon, three in Idaho, and one in Washington. There are roughly around 30 dealers (there were more before the recession), and each have their own installers, but that doesn’t count contractors, contractor employees, or building inspectors who are licensed installers.

No matter how you look at it, he says, there is a demand for installers (they’re required for each manufactured home). And McMillan gets reports on all the homes being shipping into Washington.

“Back in 2011 and 2012, I think we had 563 per year, and in 2018 we just had just shy of 1,600 new homes (coming into Washington),” he said.

Those numbers don’t reflect the number of homes being made inside Washington.

A spokesperson for CommercialCafe provided this comment in response to the disagreement over numbers:

The numbers in the article are the result of our analysis of raw BLS Occupational Employment Statistics data and the numbers refer strictly to the evolution of people employed under this occupation and code over the 10-year period we analyzed. Based on the data, the number of Manufactured Building and Mobile Home Installers in Washington changed from 260 in 2009 to 30 in 2018.

If people employed in the industry have different job titles than the one specified here, then they will not be accounted for but under a different occupation designation and this might cause the discrepancy in numbers.

The data in the BLS survey does not cover the self-employed, owners and partners in unincorporated firms, household workers, or unpaid family workers, which might affect the numbers for certain occupations.

The employment numbers by occupations can also be influenced by any changes in occupation code and designations over time and any changes in collection methods.

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