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Sunday, 07 July 2013 17:00

Industry in Transition: Construction industry tries to buck stereotypes through technology, education

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Longtime ABC President John Doherty, left, is retiring later this month. Stepping into the position is Norm Brady, a long-time executive at Triangle Associates. The two have been discussing how best to position the organization to serve members amid changes in the industry. Longtime ABC President John Doherty, left, is retiring later this month. Stepping into the position is Norm Brady, a long-time executive at Triangle Associates. The two have been discussing how best to position the organization to serve members amid changes in the industry. PHOTO: ELIJAH BRUMBACK

The construction industry wants to re-establish its position in the job market as a profession that takes innovation, technology and creativity as seriously as the companies in Silicon Valley.

In West Michigan and across the country, contractors, engineers and other industry professionals are using new technology and sophisticated systems to deliver complex building projects on shorter timelines and with fewer roadblocks than before. And just as important, they’re doing it safely.

Despite the industry’s progress over the last decade, professionals say the industry must do a better job of telling its story and fighting long-held negative perception.

“We’re not a bunch of rednecks running around the job sites without harnesses,” said Norm Brady, vice president of human resources for Grand Rapids-based Triangle Associates Inc. who next week will take over as president of the Western Michigan chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

Brady steps into the position at ABC as John Doherty, the chapter’s long-time president and a mentor within the national organization, steps down.

When Doherty joined ABC 42 years ago, he was brought on to help organize apprenticeship-training programs, which until that point, were only available through trade unions.

Today, Doherty said the construction industry continues to have talent-related challenges, an issue he and others have worked on for years. Recent efforts have focused on creating educational avenues to positions in management and in the skilled trades. Those programs are crucial as many school districts have dissolved their building trades programs, he said. Now, many of those same districts struggle to reinvest in those programs and to point students to the right courses at community colleges, for example.

ABC and companies themselves are realizing that getting to students early is the only way to bring back industry and backfill the talent pool, Doherty said.

“Before, people were promoted through the ranks,” he said. “Now there is opportunity for those coming out of college with a four-year degree to step into some of the upper management positions as the baby boomers transition out of companies.

“At the same time, we’re still working against this stigma of individuals making a living with their hands.”

The educational efforts of ABC and other industry associations come at a time when many in the industry are gearing up to hire new people.

Across West Michigan, construction companies (which are tracked with mining and logging firms) generally added jobs in the May 2012 to May 2013 period, according to data from the Association of General Contractors. Hiring in the Muskegon-Norton Shores metropolitan statistical area (MSA) grew 11 percent. The Grand Rapids-Wyoming and Kalamazoo-Portage MSAs each posted 2 percent gains, while hiring was flat in Battle Creek and Holland-Grand Haven.

“We’re looking forward to get back into the hiring mode,” said Rex Bell, president of Kalamazoo-based Miller-Davis Co. “There is some opportunity out there right now, and there should be a lot more in the coming years.”

The industry has turned to hiring after steep layoffs for many companies in the middle of the recession as projects dried up, as an aging industry workforce looks to retirement and as workloads generally improve, Bell said.

“Companies are looking for new people to build on,” he said. “It seems to be a turning point for seeing more opportunity for good, young people to get into the industry.”

The challenge is identifying people who want to be involved in the construction industry and having enough unique and rewarding work to feed people, Bell said.

A heightened focus on safety has helped the industry get better at attracting new talent, Doherty said. In the early days, there was a certain level of tolerance for injury or even death in the industry, but those attitudes are long gone, he said.

With the creation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the subsequent creation of MIOSHA, “companies started to realize the cost of injury and loss on the job site,” Doherty said.

“Today, safety is No. 1, and it’s not just a phrase or catchphrase,” he said.

With the safety issue, the industry woke up financially and emotionally as part of a broader cultural shift, said Brady.

“We are professionals and we have to work smart just like any other industry,” he said.

Bringing greater respect to the profession and changing the perception of the industry as a low-skill field is something both ABC and its member companies are resolving to correct. In the effort to do that, both Doherty and Brady said more quickly assimilating the use of systems like Building Information Modeling (BIM) and other emerging technologies into member companies is a focus for the organization going forward.

Doherty, who spent 13 years on the board of the Construction Innovation Forum and joked that the group used to laugh at the how the name seemed to be an oxymoron, said the industry has always been slow to adopt new technologies. That’s because construction requires proven, adaptable technologies and materials for permitting and safety purposes, he said. There is no such thing as a wet lab or practice building for getting used to new materials or technology, he said.

However, Doherty does see the opportunity for the next generation of building professionals already accustomed to the integration of technology. It’s the upcoming generations that could push innovation even further in the industry.

In the information age, industry professionals said clients are smarter, have greater expectations and often require the use of systems like BIM. They’re also demanding greater tracking of activities on the jobsite for the purposes of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, for example.

Most of these demands are being driven by institutional clients such as universities, but industrial clients, primarily in advanced manufacturing, are also requiring more from builders, said Bell of Miller-Davis. This has pushed many contractors to adapt to new processes or risk getting left behind.

“You’d be stupid not to use (technologies). They’re a big advantage. It’s now a standard for us,” Bell said. “We want to use digital data to do conflict resolution, and now we’re beginning to move into working through the long-term benefits of 3-D modeling in facilities management.”

There’s always a learning curve, but the industry is expected to use more off-site prefabrication and modular systems, Bell said. The switch is going to pay big dividends in time, cost and quality, he said.

Read 4883 times Last modified on Friday, 19 July 2013 11:54

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