LAS VEGAS - The future of the sheet metal industry may lie in securing more work on environmentally friendly structures and making such work attractive to young people still deciding on their careers.
Those were among the opinions of speakers at this year’s Partners in Progress conference, a biennial event jointly sponsored by the Sheet Metal Workers union and the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association.
This year’s April 3-5 sessions, which attracted 570 attendees, focused heavily on offering advice for contractors to secure new markets for their products and services, such as the rapidly expanding market for structures designed to save energy and minimize impact on the environment.
SMACNA has responded to the movement by forming a task force on green building and bidding for such projects. It produced a guide for HVAC contractors on the issue, authored by a University of Kansas professor.
But for some HVAC and sheet metal contractors, it is still a maze of confusing regulations and specifications.
However, there’s no denying this growing trend. With rising gas prices making more people aware of energy costs, building owners - and even whole states - are looking to save money on heating, cooling and other utilities. The U.S. Green Building Council, which administers the popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building-certification program, says buildings account for 36 percent of America’s energy use. Heating and cooling equipment accounts for a big part of that total.
There's ‘green' in greenFor contractors who understand that and the environmental-building movement, there’s money to be made, said Guy Gast, president of Waldinger Corp. in Des Moines, Iowa.
Gast, a member of SMACNA’s green project bidding task force, has found success working on LEED and other types of green projects in his home state. He hosted “Bidding Green: The Future of Construction Contracting” April 3.
The well-attended seminar showed there was a lot of interest among SMACNA and Sheet Metal Workers union members in the topic.
“We’re a significant player in how energy in buildings gets consumed - and I think everybody in this room knows that,” Gast told the crowd.
Gast called the LEED program, which certifies a structure’s energy savings, “a merit badge for a building.”
In the two years his company has been working on green buildings, the movement has grown substantially. In 2007 alone, he said, membership in the USGBC grew 60 percent. Today, there are 43,000 LEED-accredited professionals, and 75 percent more LEED-registered buildings than just a year earlier.
“That means we’re talking about the largest market in the United States,” he said. “There is no market that has actually grown faster.”
States pushThe movement has been buoyed by states such as California mandating LEED certification for many government buildings. A few states, such as Nevada, offer generous tax credits for “going green.”
And that, combined with the possibility of saving thousands of dollars in taxes and energy in coming years, has made green building come of age.
“I think that’s what developers look at - ‘Where am I going to get my savings?’ ” Gast said.
He noted that the American Institute of Architects wants to only be erecting “carbon-neutral buildings” - which means balancing the amount of carbon dioxide released by them into the air with non-carbon dioxide-producing fuels - by 2030.
Working on structures striving for LEED certification doesn’t have to be so confusing, added Matt Jesson, a LEED-accredited sheet metal project manager at Waldinger Corp.
“There’s a lot of things you can do to make a building green,” he said, adding the program “offers a buffet of options.”
However, when working on projects going for LEED certification, which awards points for technologies and construction methods that conserve energy, you’re likely to find some that don’t make fiscal sense, Jesson told the audience.
Points“There are points (available) for any given project that are cost prohibitive,” he said.
In any green-building project, indoor air quality is likely to be a major issue, which may complicate your material handling. The men advised considering that when bidding.
“We’re not just talking about capping the (duct) ends,” Gast said.
Most building owners attempting LEED certification are adamant about controlling dust and other contaminants. Failing to do so could cost the project points - and possibly certification.
“You might not be able to store a lot of duct on site,” Jesson pointed out. You may have to use just-in-time delivery or pay for off-site storage.
“I think it’s important that your shop operations are aligned” with LEED requirements, Gast said. “Are you going to shrink-wrap” ductwork?
Be prepared for project supervisors to complain about the stringent requirements, Jesson said.
“They need to look at LEED at the very beginning of the job,” he said. Everything has to be done with the USGBC’s specifications in mind.
But make sure any contracts say you are not responsible for ensuring a building is certified, Gast added. Many projects start out seeking certification but are unable to meet the building council’s requirements.
Generating interestA number of industry-sponsored studies say the HVAC and sheet metal industry are going to have a difficult time recruiting workers to replace those expected to retire in the near future. That’s led to a spate of convention seminars on the issue. Partners in Progress was no exception. It hosted “Communicating With Millenials” April 3.
Millenials, sometimes called Generation Y or “echo boomers,” were roughly born between 1980 and 1994. The oldest members have been in the full-time work force for about five years. Predicting what employers can expect from this generation - and what millennials expect from employers - has kept experts like Robert Wendover busy. The director of the Center for Generational Studies in Aurora, Colo., has given a lot of discussions about the Y generation at industry events in recent years.
Echoing a similar presentation he had given at the Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s annual meeting a few weeks before (see “Heating, cooling and counter-terrorism,” May 2008), Wendover used his platform to explain how each generation handles boring speakers.
An older worker, he said, will stay to the end of a speech and pay attention to it, out of a sense of obligation. A baby boomer will probably stay as well, but he or she will quietly do other work. Generation X members will give a presentation about 10 minutes to grab their attention before leaving. Millennials will wait just 90 seconds before getting up.
Age and safetyGetting through to workers with such short attention spans is difficult - and could pose job safety problems. Wendover said many younger workers don’t understand why they can’t send text messages while working machinery.
“Safety is something you are going to have to stress more than any other (issue),” he said.
They also don’t understand the costs of running a business. Many think company owners are millionaires, he said.
“Teach them the economics (of a business), because they think you’re driving a fancy car,” Wendover said.
But for some local union and SMACNA chapters, there have been some successes. Organizers assembled a panel to talk about them. In Denver, Larry Lawrence, training director at Sheet Metal Workers union Local 9, has had more success than many other union training facilities in attracting young people to the profession. The average age of apprentices in Denver is 24 versus 32 years old for sheet metal training centers in the rest of the United States, Lawrence said.
Lawrence credits it to a willingness to reach out to teenagers.
“I do a ton of recruiting in the high schools - a ton,” he said.
Lawrence said other recruiters don’t like to visit high schools, complaining that the teens are unlikely to stay interested in the industry and disparagingly compare the visits to babysitting. He strongly disagrees, estimating that 69 percent of those in Denver’s apprentice program are millennials and 25 percent are Generation X.
Positive reinforcement is key to keeping them interested.
“They want to hear that they’re doing a good job. If they don’t hear that, they worry,” Lawrence said.
Unlike some other programs, Lawrence allows students to work at their own pace and take classes in the subjects that interest them.
Those are key to keeping students in the program, he said, adding, “They lose interest if they have to wait.”
Word of mouthAnother panelist, Dan Rose, training director with Sheet Metal Workers union Local 88 in Las Vegas, has had better luck with younger workers than members of Generation X.
“The biggest complaint I get about Gen Xers is, ‘Great worker - when he’s here,’ ” Rose said.
In contrast, he said Generation Y workers, aka millennials, appreciate challenges, are savvy about technology and want to work.
Rose does a lot of recruiting at area job fairs and tries to get school counselors to visit the local’s training facility.
However, it wasn’t working very well.
“I don’t know how to get the young people into our program,” he admitted.
After playing for some television and radio advertising, Rose found word of mouth was still the best way to attract workers. So in July 2007, he instituted a $100 per worker finders’ fee.
“It seems to have gotten quite a response,” he said.
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