Usually, asking “How’s business?” is a good way to start a conversation at a cocktail party or other industry event.

The polite answer, whether its true or not, is “Good.” It’s sort of like asking “How are you?” The reply, etiquette dictates, is “Fine. And you?” Nobody really expects an honest answer: “My feet hurt. I’m stressed out at home. My job is shaky.”

But these days, when you ask someone how their company is doing, few will tell you things are fine. And even if they do, do you believe them?

The recession has affected all segments of the world’s economy - construction is no exception. As you may have read in this month’s cover story on the $787 billion economic stimulus package and industry hopes for it, construction is among those most feeling the effects of the slowdown in spending. Unemployment rates for those who work in construction-related fields are double the overall national rate.

I’ve spoken to several sheet metal equipment makers in recent weeks about the industry. Some have been quick to say matter-of-factly that business is very slow. Others acknowledge that sales could be stronger, but they’re eager to point out a contractor that is purchasing several pieces of new equipment.

Surveys say

A recent poll on www.snipsmag.com shows the industry is under stress. Of those who responded to our unscientific February survey on local business conditions, 54 percent said business was slow (see chart). Perhaps more telling, not one said business was great. Fortunately, almost a third did say they were staying busy.

And yet there are businesses expanding. In the last few weeks I’ve heard from a few sheet metal company officials who are proud to say that they’re investing in new machinery. I imagine the companies that sold it to them are pretty happy, too.

And there are signs that people may be feeling a little more optimistic about the future of the economy. Perhaps that explains the results of another poll, which recently landed in my e-mail inbox. Zogby Interactive asked likely voters in March if the United States was heading in the right direction. Although only 45 percent said it was, that number was a big jump from January, when only 14 percent felt positive about where the nation was heading.

The latest reports show housing is experiencing a small uptick in sales, even if many of them are moving at bargain-basement prices. Will the next few weeks see that positive number heading above the magic 50 percent mark in Zogby’s next survey?

Past surveys on our Web site showed Snips readers and visitors highly skeptical of President Barack Obama’s ability to turn the economy around anytime soon as well as the effectiveness of the billions the government is spending to spur growth. Nevertheless, I imagine anyone lucky enough to get some work funded in whole or part by the so-called Obama bucks will be happy to do it.

We’d love to hear from any readers who are seeing any effects from the stimulus package, whether it’s new construction or selling new, high-efficiency HVAC equipment thanks to the generous tax incentives the package contains. E-mail me at mcconnellm@bnpmedia.com and include your name, business and contact information. We may run your letter on this page or contact you for a future story. 

Results of snipsmag.com February poll

How is business right now in your area?

•Great. We have more work than we can handle: 0%

• Good. We’re staying busy: 29% 

• OK. It’s been worse: 17%

• Poor. It’s hard to find work right now: 54%