Crystal Ball 2019 Outlook Q&A: Rex Bell, Miller-Davis

BY Sunday, December 23, 2018 06:31pm

Rex Bell has served as president of Miller-Davis Co. for the last 22 years and has never seen a worker shortage like the company faces today. It’s a problem he expects to continue throughout 2019. With a busy year ahead for the Kalamazoo-based general contracting firm that focuses on higher education, K-12, nonprofit and industrial projects, he hopes for a renewed focus on training by companies and encouraging high school students to go into skilled trades.

What will be interesting to watch in 2019?


More P3 projects (public-private partnerships). We’re seeing quite a few of those, and those tend to be very large projects. We have done some projects like that, but we’re starting to see more, so that’ll be a trend we’ll be watching. Even though it doesn’t have a direct tie to what goes on in Southwest Michigan, the national political scene — it’s just not very stable and that tends to affect the financial markets. If people get nervous enough, it can affect their decisions to expand. We always worry about things we can’t control. I don’t see any impact right now, but you always get a little concerned that that can have an impact on your business at some point. 

What issues are you hearing about from subcontractors in the region?

Most of the issues we have, the root is the lack of qualified workers. It’s still a very big issue for us as we still perform general trade work, concrete, structural steel. We get firsthand experience with issues going on with qualified workers. It’s gotten to the point now where it goes beyond skilled trades; it’s crossed over into professional areas as well. I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Beyond that, there’s an impact that the shortage of workers has had on schedules, quality and costs of construction. There aren’t enough folks to do the work, and we sometimes can’t schedule the way we would want to. With a lack of experience, there’s a quality issue that has to be monitored much more closely. 

How do you adjust to that shortage with a busy year planned for projects in 2019?

I expect things to continue to be very busy. I think there is now, and continues to be, a renewed focus on training by the companies. I think that’s another thing we’ll see more of next year. Another thing we’re seeing is educators starting to expand the focus on vocational training and skilled trades. We’re seeing a lot of that down here and in other parts of the state. We’re active in that with our contractors association, (the Associated General Contractors of Michigan). Creativity is a big, big part of (adjusting to the shortage). We’re trying to work with each subcontractor that may have challenges and find ways to supplement their crews. We’ve seen an unprecedented amount of overtime, shift work and sometimes it extends schedules on projects as well. 

What challenges and opportunities does the legalization of marijuana present for your industry?

For us, it’s status quo in terms of our drug policy in the company. Several clients we work for have drug testing programs and require us as a contractor to participate in those. It’s to be determined how this plays out. Right now, it hasn’t had an impact on us, but potentially it could be troublesome if we see an increased usage. Right now, we’ve chosen not to pursue that work, not to actively go after that market. It’s just our judgment at this point in time. At this point, we really have adequate work in the market sectors we operate in, so we haven’t had to go look for additional work in that market.

Interview conducted and condensed by Sydney Smith.

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