Yesterday, as I was sifting through my emails, social media, and other sites of entertainment, I got the following message from Charlie on the Fritter Facebook page. His questions were of the type I suspect others may have. So rather than answer him direct in FB, I told him to stop by here and I would reply so others may possibly benefit from the information. Here is the email:
Good morning, capt’n! I just wanted you to know I’ve been enjoying your blog since I got it in my head to move to the keys. I’m currently in New Hampshire, having moved here from Maui about four years ago (I moved for business opportunities which really haven’t been worth it) and am missing island life like I can’t describe. In my quest for info, I purchased your book about moving. Very well done and thank you for the resource. One question I do have is regarding employment opportunities. I’ve been a general contractor for about twenty years and have plenty of knowledge and tools to accomplish any size job. I’m wondering though, what kind of opportunities or lack thereof I’ll be faced with once I arrive? What are the prevailing rates for independent tradesmen?
Also, having grown up in Charleston, SC, I spent a great deal of time on boats and really want to go the live aboard route. I lived on a 38′ Cheoy Lee Offshore for a while when I was at the College of Charleston and loved every minute of it. I’ve been doing a lot of research on used sloops and places to park one and would treasure any advice you could throw my way about the best places to look for deals.
Anyway, thanks again for all the resources you’ve assembled and I hope you’re having an amazing day.
Thanks Charlie for the kind words and the purchase of the book. Appreciate it. So let’s get down to the obvious here.
Why in the hell would you leave Maui for New Hampshire? NO. Just NO. No amount of money would ever get me anywhere north of the 25 parallel. No. Charlie, we need to talk.
Just kidding of course, but it sounds like you realized the error of your ways and are ready to come back to some proper and civilized tropical climates. So let’s get into it. I’m going to constipate mostly on your questions regarding job opportunities. It’s an important aspect for anyone moving anywhere, especially someplace where the cost of living is going to be high, and distractions for entertainment will be many, as it is here in the Keys.
The good news is there are plenty of jobs in the Florida Keys. You can find some sort of employment just about anywhere from Ocean Reef to Key West. The downside? The Keys have some of the lowest wages in the state of Florida, which has some of the lowest wages in the country. There are plenty of jobs here, if you don’t mind working for $10 an hour. Retail, service jobs in the hospitality industry, crewing on boats, tour guides, and delivery are in plentiful supply. Remember this is a tourist based economy so everything relies on Ma and Pa Kettle packing up the young’uns and coming down here from Bugtustle, Iowa. You can count on three things with these sorts of jobs. Long hours, low pay, and an asshole boss.
There is a very high turnover of people down here. Cost of living, too much partying, and low wages means most people last a year or two before giving up and going back up north. Employers know this so they are unwilling to dish out decent pay. Why pay somebody $20 an hour when they are just going to leave when you can pay somebody $10 an hour, get the same amount of work out of them, and they will still be gone in a year. It’s the nature of the economy down here and there is not much which is going to change it in the near future.
I use the $10 an hour figure as an example, but a look through the job listings will show I am pretty close. It’s not to say there are no good paying jobs though. And let me clarify, I am not talking about the high end white collar jobs, nor those requiring a degree. I’m talking the low skill, some of the trades, and the ‘fun’ jobs everyone thinks are so cool, like kayak guide or fishing captain. In reality, these sorts of jobs are hard physically and mentally. You are out in the elements, dealing with inexperienced clients, unsafe conditions, and subject to lots of regulations. It just looks cool.
I will say, my time working as a kayak tour guide did pay pretty well, just not steady. A typical tour involved anywhere from 2 to 10 people. From the time it took to prep the boats and gear, until I returned and cleaned up everything, was about 3 hours. I would get $40 for the tour and whatever I could glean from tips. On average, about $20 a tour. I found if I returned with the same number of people I left with, tips would tend to be larger, but for the most part, the survivors never complained.
Any business where you can earn tips can result in a more better rate of pay. Restaurant people rely a lot on tips but I hear horror stories of managers and owners stealing tip money or otherwise finding ways to screw employees out of their earned money. I was able to keep all my tips which made it nice.
There are a couple trains of thought regarding tips. Some guides/captains/etc. will blatantly ask, at the end of the trip for a tip. Or they will keep a tip jar, a hat, or what have you at the ready. That’s ok, but I always took the other route. I tried to give the best trip I could. I had a nice spiel laid out for the trip with silly jokes mixed in with real information. I always talked to my clients, asked where they were from, what they did, and usually by the end of the trip, we were almost friends. Most of the time, they appreciated the extra attention to detail and safety, and if you happened to come across a manatee encounter or see some sharks or a dolphin, or sometimes a mermaid, the tips would increase. Other times, I’ve put in what I thought was the best trip I could possibly do, and get stiffed. It’s ok, because not everyone can afford to tip, and I figgered if I didn’t get a tip, I did something wrong. No matter, if you do happen to get into a gig which relies on tips, it can be very lucrative.
Charlie, in your email you indicated you have worked extensively as a contractor although you didn’t specify what you do. Depending on your trade there could be many opportunities down here. Construction is almost constant up and down the Keys. Somebody is always building something. There are also a lot of craftspersons who have opened up little shops to ply their trade. It sounds like you have the knowledge and equipment to do something but there will be obstacles to doing so.
First of all, getting established and building a customer base will take time. Lots of time. Many have come down here with some sort of trade looking to start up something and failed. Mostly due to lack of capital, experience, or being more interested in hanging out in the bars than actually working. As a result, many clients and customers have been burned by poor workmanship, over priced estimates, and people not following through with promises. You are going to have to prove yourself and it won’t happen overnight. These islands are small and everyone knows everyone else. If somebody does somebody else wrong, word spreads very quickly.
There are also many companies in just about all the trades already established in the Keys and have been for a long time. They will be tough to go up against if you are just a small one man operation. They have established clientele, a brand which is familiar to the locals, and more than likely, they know people in the local governments and have the ability to deal with the local laws and regulations.
You didn’t say if you were looking to work for somebody else or if you wanted to start up your own company. If you go to work for somebody else, in some ways, this can take a lot of headaches out of the move. All you need to do is show up, do your job, and follow the rules of the company. Let them worry about the permits, licenses, and finding new work. The downside is you will be making way more less money, you’ll be subject to whatever rules they impose, and more than likely, you’ll have a boss who is an asshole. Personally, I prefer to work for myself. I’m the only asshole I can deal with.
If you decide to start up your own business, especially one where there may be a lot of competition, be sure to have a lot of capital ready to spend. You are going to need it. Even if you want to just have a simple one man operation running out of a van, you are still going to need licenses, insurance, bonding, and depending on your trade, other requirements. You will have to deal with the State of Florida, Monroe County, and possibly some of the city governments. And a quick aside, every business person I talked to in Key West says the local city government is one of the worst to deal with. Just beware. Do your homework regarding what you’ll need to make yourself legal now, before you decide to make a move. All levels of government down here have good websites to help you get what you need. It’s when you have to deal directly with government employees is when you run into trouble.
One other aside: Even though it’s right next door, avoid any ideas about operating in the Miami area. The city and county are some of the worst bureaucratic nightmares known to mankind. Nobody speaks English and it’s like trying to work in a foreign country. Do yourself a favor and stay out of Miami.
Assuming you do get through the maze of government obstacles and finally get a business up and running, you are going to need to get clients. Marketing will take up a lot of your time. Bidding for jobs, getting recommendations, competing with more established companies. It’s gonna be tough. You’re going to run into unexpected blockades. A resort may have special requirements over and above the minimum set by government to do any work on their property. You may have to purchase materials from a certain supplier or they may not offer you a discount like the more established companies until you prove you are going to be profitable. Just when you think you have everything all set, somebody comes along and changes the rules or adds new ones.
Then there is the issue of employees. If you are starting up a company and you decide you need some help, look out. As bad as it is for worker bees to find a decent boss, finding a worker bee who actually works is even more difficult. The Keys, being the Keys, seems to attract all the crazies, (which is why I am here). Drunks, drug addicts, crazy idiots, illegal immigrants, criminals hiding from the law, they are all down here. Be ready to run extensive background checks and drug testing. Many may not speak very good English, or none at all. If you can speak Spanish, Haitian, and even Russian, it will help. Then, since this is the Keys, distractions are many. Absenteeism is huge problem. The lure of the bars, spending a day out on the water fishing instead of working. A worker bee who actually shows up everyday is considered a prize catch down here. And, this being the extreme south, and a semi Caribbean island, things tend to just move a bit slower than up north. Good help will be hard to find and difficult to keep. Compare the cost of living to the average wage, for example: Paying out $1500 a month for rent and only making $10 an hour. Not too many can stay here for a long time. So expect a high turnover of personnel.
And finally, being in a sub tropical climate, and at the end of the world here are some things to consider:
The weather is hot. Very hot. No, you don’t understand. It’s hot. And humid. All the time. If you are going to be outside working it’s going to hit you hard. Heat stroke, dehydration, sunburn, will take it’s toll. If you are going to be out in it, dress for it. Lightweight light colored clothing, (keep the company colors tropical and light, no black), wide brim hat, sunglasses, and lots of sunblock. Keep water handy at all times. Be aware of the dangers of working in the heat. It will kill you.
Summer storms can stop a project instantly. Lightning, high winds, and hail can wreak havoc with a schedule. Allow for weather when possible. Hurricanes don’t occur enough to worry about, but regular thunderstorms can cause problems.
You say you have tools? Make damn sure they are inventoried and insured. Secure them at all times. Theft is rampant in the Keys and anything not tied down will vanish in an instant.
If you are planning on using a vehicle such as a van, purchase said vehicle up north, not here in the Keys. And stay away from brand new. The climate down here will destroy a vehicle in months. Salt will creep in to all places and the sun will destroy the paint in short order. Find yourself a good deal on a vehicle which is may have some minor body issues already. Don’t over pay, drive until the wheels fall off, sell it as a conch cruiser on Craigslist, and get another.
Take advantage of technology as much as you can to market yourself. A good website, a FB page and Twitter account. Get your name out there all over the inter webs as much as you can. If you are not tech savvy, learn, or find someone who is, but tech can be the cheapest and easiest way to market your skills.
Start looking now for suppliers who have the things you need to ply your trade. We do have Home Depots, a variety of smaller hardware stores and the occasional specialty shop, but you may find supplies limited and replacement tools difficult to find. And, like Maui, expect to pay much more because everything needs to be shipped down here.
Be honest and above board on all your dealings. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, own up to your mistakes, and do the best you can to make sure the job was done correctly and within budget. As I said earlier, the islands are small, and word gets around fast if you do a good job, much more faster if you do a bad job.
Before you come here to this island paradise, sit down and figure out your living finances. How much you spend on rent, food, and other necessities. And as everyone who reads this knows what I’m about to say….MINIMALIZE! See what you can do without. Get rid of all the extra crap in your life and simplify the lifestyle as much as you can. Pay off all debt before you come here. Do not come down owing money to anybody for anything, especially credit card debt. i cannot stress this enough. You are going to need money to live on, at least for two years before you can rely on your own devices to bring in some profits. The less you have to spend when you are down here, the more better. Debt will do nothing except insure a quick return back to New Hampshire. Move down here with as little as possible and learn to live as simply as you can.
There are plenty of things going on in the Keys all the time. Festivals, parties, watersports, and sometimes, just hanging out in the bars. While it’s tempting to go and partake of all these wonderful things, they will cost you money and you won’t be making money whilst there. Resist the urge to go and hit Duval every night. You have a life and a business to establish. Constipate on getting those things done first. The parties are not going anywhere and there will be plenty of time down the road to enjoy them.
So, have I burst your bubble yet? I don’t mean too, but I don’t like to sugarcoat things. It took me 30 years before I was ready to move here and even now, I’m having some tough times, but most of that is my fault…just kidding. I totally blame the ex girlfriend, may she rest in peace.
Charlie, you do have some advantage in you have lived in Maui, which from what I’ve been able to research is a lot like the Keys. So you are familiar to a certain extent with the island life. This will help but I cannot urge you enough, and anybody else seeking to move here. Research, study, and do your homework. When it comes down to the basics, living in the Keys is no different than living anywhere else. You have to make some income, you need to eat, you need a place to live. The islands have their own special uniqueness to be sure, but you still need to make a living.
I’ve gotten a bit wordy on this subject and I haven’t even touched on your other questions regarding living aboard, but I will help you a bit. Go back into the archives of the Fritter. Try searching Live Aboard. I have written extensively about all the adventures I’ve had living on a sailboat in the Florida Keys. There is a ton of information there. Read it, study it, there will be a test later. If you have any questions, please ask. I will be glad to help.
I hope, everyone, this post has helped with some of you who are wondering about the job market down here. I touched on the basics as much as I could and maybe it will help you make an informed and intelligent decision about what you want to do should you move down here. It’s not easy, there are many obstacles to success, but when are there not? I alway encourage anyone who can to try and start up their own enterprise, be it a construction company, tour guide, or writer. Succeed or fail, profit or loss, you will have at least tried. It’s way more better than just sitting on your ass wondering what would have happened if…
Go make it happen.