CHICAGOLAND ‘ A recent construction industry conference cited the current skilled worker shortage as an ongoing concern for the United States and Canada, and presented solutions to this concern as part of the event.
The United Association (UA) of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders and HVAC Techs held the Tripartite Conference, entitled ‘Building Stronger Partnerships for a Better Future,” in late September 2009 at the UA Local Union 597 Training Center in Mokena, IL. The UA is a multi-craft union whose members are engaged in the fabrication, installation and servicing of piping systems.
The tripartite is composed of union officials, contractors, and end-user business owners, coming together to discuss common interests and goals, recognize new challenges, and develop joint solutions.
‘In the complex, interrelated fields of construction and energy production, progress can only be achieved when key participants come together to exchange ideas,” said Stephen Lamb, Executive Director at the Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA) of Chicago, which works closely with Chicago area contractors and LU 597. ‘This year’s tripartite event was a big success and we plan on holding the conference annually.”
What Happens After the Baby Boomers Retire?
In his keynote speech, William P. Hite, General President of the United Association, noted that the UA is facing a huge challenge which is also a concern of the entire construction industry: an aging population of skilled workers looking forward to retirement. ‘Fifty percent of their members are approaching age 50,” he said, ‘and new skilled workers will be needed to replace them.”
This workforce skills shortage must be addressed, he observed, so that a lack of workers will not hinder future energy-related construction efforts. ‘We will be competing with other industries for workers,” he said.
Currently, the non-union sector represents 60 percent of the industry at large, he said, but it trains less than 15 percent of apprentices. ‘Project managers will be short-handed unless they use the workforce trained by the UA,” Hite said.
Hite stated that the UA will encourage project managers to employ a 1-to-5 ratio of apprentices to journeymen on jobsites. ‘We have to get more young blood into this industry,” he said. ‘If project managers mandated this ratio to contractors, we’d have way more people stepping up into this industry.”
Hite pointed out that today’s apprentices are older than in previous generations. The average age of current UA apprentices, he said, is 27 years old, and up to 50 percent of apprentice applicants are college graduates. The UA works aggressively to keep its workers employed: If work is not available in the area where an apprentice has trained, he said, work can be found for them in a different area.
In recent years, the UA has employed innovative new techniques to bring underemployed sectors of the population into the UA. Hite cited the examples of the UA Veterans in Piping Program, which trains members of the armed forces for careers with the association, and also the Native American Outreach Program, which is underway at LU 597 and also at LU 469 in Phoenix, AZ. ‘Unemployment is as high as 50 percent on some reservations,” Hite said.
‘In plumbing and pipefitting alone, we invest more than $170 million in training,” Hite said. ‘When it comes to training, we always try to stay ahead of the curve.”
New Departments and Green Training
Hite also announced that the UA has added three new departments to address the energy needs of the future.
The UA Department of Energy will be led by Director Jerome O’Leary. ‘Our new energy department will make sure we have a good, solid focus on the entire energy industry,” Hite said.
Rick Terven, Sr., has been named as the Director of the new UA Department of Political & Legislative Affairs, which will serve as a liaison between the association and government offices.
Steve Allen will head the new UA Department of Sustainable Technology, which will address issues arising from green construction. Each of the UA’s 300 training centers in the U.S. and Canada, Hite said, are now mandated to have at least one Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional (LEED AP) certified instructor on staff, to ensure that all trained workers are thoroughly educated for green building.
Hite also discussed the UA’s two new green training trailers, one of which was available for tours at the Tripartite Conference. ‘All the latest sustainable technology is demonstrated in there,” he said. The UA also has 60 other training trailers on the road, demonstrating welding, plumbing, and other construction disciplines.
‘Education has always been a high priority for both MCA Chicago and the UA,” said Lamb, ‘and this year’s Tripartite Conference provided a rewarding learning experience for its participants, which is especially important during a recession. The economy is now getting better, and many of the initiatives discussed at this event will lead to an even better economic picture for the United States and Canada.”