Have trade, will travel
By Bob" Hot Rod" Rohr
Tough economic times call for creative answers. Many tradesfolk are struggling to find work and facing low-ball bids on the little work in the pipeline. Perhaps you could consider dusting off your passport and thinking globally. Many U.S. military bases are undergoing energy and alternate energy upgrades, thus providing jobs stateside, as well as at bases abroad. It seems there are few general contractors that specialize in the design and installation of this government work, and there appears to be a steady flow of work on the books.
We recently sent a large solar thermal order to Cuba. The Guantanamo Bay Naval base in Cuba (Gitmo) is upgrading some of their housing units. The old, outdated, “out of code” structures are being demolished and new buildings being built in their place. The base serves the Navy, Marine and Coast Guard fleets and is busy all the time with ships harboring for upgrades and decontamination. It is the logistics center for the Counter Drug Operation in the Caribbean.
I traveled down South to help with installation of the solar project. The trip to Gitmo from Miami was on a small twin-engine prop plan. The flight took me around the eastern end of Cuba, as their air space is closed to most air travel. While it looked on the map to be a short hop, the flight took several hours. Beautiful blue waters welcomed me to the base, a diver’s paradise. It was a short, swift boat ride across the bay to the base, which covers about 45 square miles of land and water. I was surprised to see that the landscape is mostly brown, sun-scorched ground. I was expecting to see a lush tropical landscape.
The Cuban government shut down power and water to the base many years ago. Electricity comes from generators and four large wind turbines, which were installed in 2005. The wind spinners provide about 25 percent of the base’s electricity. A desalinization plant provides more than three million gallons of potable water per day. A large PV array was under construction as I toured around the area. Taking pictures of the energy sources is strictly forbidden; numerous guard towers along the 17-mile fence line were adequate in discouraging me from any attempt at snapping shots. The fence is patrolled 24/7 on both sides. Also on patrol are plentiful, large iguanas, strutting across the walkways and parking lots to give the place a Jurassic Park feel.
Access to the base is by invitation only; you must have a sponsor unless you are enlisted in a branch of the service that is stationed on the base or travels to it. The “Cactus Curtain” separates the base from Cuban territory and keeps locals from entering. The U.S. pulled up the land mines surrounding the base, but the Cuban government has kept their minefield in place. Over 50,000 mines had at one time been placed around the “No Man’s” zone. Workers tell me that, as viewed from the rooftops, an occasional puff of dust in the distance indicates that unsuspecting livestock or wildlife has stepped on a mine.
Early each morning, I was picked up and transported at 20 mph (the strictly-enforced speed limit), to the temporary office facilities of the general contractor and engineering team. After a brief safety meeting and after picking up a handful of safety equipment, I was on my way to the jobsite, which was spread across several locations and consisted of duplex and quad units on hilly settings with gently curved roadways. The feeling was much “homier” than that of the previous rows of housing units. The new, brightly colored, stucco buildings were much more family friendly than the beige concrete block buildings that they were replacing.
I met with the plumbing foreman to look over some of the thermal solar systems he had completed. Master plumber/pipefitter Michael Simeone hails from the Rochester, N.Y. area. With commercial and industrial work in his home market hit and miss, Mike searched the Tradesmen International website (tradesmenInternational.com) for opportunities. A former Marine, Mike is a perfect fit for life on the base and for leading his team through the large, fast-tracked project. His craftsmanship is first class.
With an eye to a good, tax free paycheck to provide for his family, Mike signed a two-year contract. He is an avid diver; access to the reef around the base played into his decision to sign on for the job. Families of the service personnel live on the base; much like any small town it has schools, ball fields and even fast food stores. The surrounding waters are tourist-free and offer amazing diving and snorkeling opportunities.
I met tradespeople from across the U.S. There were roofers from Alabama, stucco crews from Texas and HVAC installers from various southern states. Many of the people I met had been on other overseas projects with the same general contractor, BRDC Inc. Among the list of projects they have worked on were power plant construction, desalinization plant projects and large resort development.
The various crew foremen consisted of experienced tradespeople from the U.S., while foreign nationals serve as the labor force. The crew I worked with had been hired from the Philippines. It seemed the majority of workers on the island are from the Philippines, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
My plan was to get my hands dirty and help the crew with some installations and a run- through of the startup and control programming. While it was plenty hot on the roofs, gentle breezes from the bay kept working topside bearable. I enjoyed my conversations with installers Edilberto and Elmo from the Philippines. My very limited Spanish and their limited English skills led to some good laughs. The language of the tradesperson, for me, is skill with the tools. With a lot of hands-on demonstrations and charades, we managed to get several systems up on the roof and piped back to the mechanical room. Edilberto and Elmo were happy to be learning a new skill and grateful for the wages that a project like this provided, compared to the hourly wage they were used to in their home country.
Perhaps work has slowed in your area and you are up for an adventure. If you like to travel to faraway places, maybe a search through the offerings at www.tradesmeninternational.com could provide a ticket to a new chapter in your career. Think of it as an extended Boy or Girl Scout trip for the over-30 crowd.
One more thing. It was an honor to work on this project, knowing that we were helping provide safe, comfortable energy for the U.S servicemen and women stationed in Cuba. Thanks for all you do!