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Utah Business

Building, Construction, & Design Roundtable

Every month, Utah Business partners with Holland & Hart and Big-D Construction to host roundtable events featuring industry insiders. This month we invited the top building, construction, and design specialists to discuss the talent shortage, millennials, and safety. Moderated by Richard Thorn, President and CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Utah, here are a few highlights from the event.

What’s the state of Utah’s building, construction, and design industry?

Rob Moore | President | Big-D Construction

We’re in the usual spot where our backlogs are very good. The industry right now as a whole is probably struggling a bit with skilled labor and making sure we’ve got the labor in front of us to be able to perform our assignments. At stake for us are big ideas.

Jeremy Blanck | Project Executive | Okland Construction

The challenge that we’re facing is what type of work do we do, how do we do it, when do we do it. It’s forced us all to be a little more strategic. How can we take care of our existing clients and still grow a little bit and take on some new clients? You’ve got a lot of in-migration occurring and that’s just continuing to build our market. So, we’re still optimistic about where we’re headed.

Craig Zwick | Chairman Of The Advisory Board | Zwick Construction Company

We need to be supportive of local higher education, to the extent that their entry levels allow our best and brightest. Maybe even a non-profit organization. Right here in this valley, we could actually do some pretty significant vocational training. And when you’ve got an ever-growing Hispanic community, they can go beyond what they’ve ever imagined if we help them.

Slade Opheikens | President | R&O Construction

Anything we can do to not push everybody to go to a four-year college and to be willing to enjoy the thrill of picking up a hammer and knowing what it’s like to actually build something and leave [behind something besides a stack of papers].

Keith Buswell | Vice President | Wadman Corporation

We talk about the kids in high school who are great with their hands. There’s a lot of things that they can do, we just need to be able to steer them towards a long-term opportunity in our industry. It’s high tech, there’s a lot of computer things that they don’t have to get a bachelor’s or master’s degree to be able to work in our business.

Brett Nielsen | Vice President Of Operations | Whitaker Construction

It’s becoming more and more difficult to put a bucket in the ground. Damage prevention is becoming more and more of an issue. All three legs of the stool for damage prevention, the owners, the locators, and the excavators, all play a pivotal role. If any of those start to slide a little bit, we’re starting to put our people in the general public in harm’s way. We all have to step up and do a little bit better to help protect ourselves.

Andrew Jones | Vice President | Tempest Enterprises

It is harder to put a bucket in the ground. We deal with soils and water, and not only groundwater, but potential hazardous environments, and it is becoming harder to look at our success triangle of safety, quality, and production. But the safety and environmental side is huge. As that goes up, cost goes up, and we want to be on the forefront of it, we want to engage it, and we want to be good at what we do, but we also know that it brings a lot of cost to the table. So that’s what we’re looking at as we go forward. How do we both incur those costs and still put out a good product at a good price, and stay in business, more or less.

Shane Albrecht | Vice President Of Construction | Geneva Rock Products

Labor continues to be a challenge for us, especially at the peak of the seasons. Trying to find people to come is difficult. We’ve met with a lot of the schools, we try to reach out to the high schools, and the job fairs that are available, and try to make ourselves visible and available to students to consider employment in the construction industry.

We’re constantly reminded that parents are encouraging their children to go on and get higher degrees, and to not consider the construction path. And that’s kind of a scary thought that a lot of these kids that are coming up that would do wonderful may find that a four-year degree is not what they need. But they have a great opportunity to work in this construction industry and make a great living. And that’s a message that we’re trying to convey to them as well, [that we are trying] to support them.

Sean Davis | President | Brahma Group

Utah’s industrial market has been challenging over the last several years with its shifting of how we produce power within the country. A lot of it’s shifted to solar. The refineries have had some challenges there with increase in the tier three fuels, so all the refineries here will be doing expansions over the next several years. They’ve had a lot of consolidation within the refineries.  Now a lot of the companies are owned by foreign entities. In third world countries that then don’t have the same laws or regulations that we have here, then the countries try to take over some of the investment that some of these big companies put in there.

Kyle Smith | Chief Estimator | Granite Construction Company

The tight labor market is an issue. There’s several large projects that are hitting all at once, which is going to be a real challenge. Subcontractor capacity is going to be an issue as we move forward. I would echo too what Sean said about the industrial sites that we work in. That’s improving as commodity prices are good. They’re making improvements to their facilities, so that’s driving demand as well.

Brandon Squire | President | Wadsworth Construction

We’re having to grow our own workforce. Hiring a laborer and training them for a carpenter, for an operator, for that skilled development, and a mentoring program internally is becoming more and more important.

Jake Goodliffe | Vice President | Staker Parson Materials & Construction

Brandon started to uncover a little bit of a birth spot in the war for talent out there. That’s going to create an opportunity for all of us to develop our talent, and it’s been rewarding to see the response and the interest and talent of our younger workforce to be able to take on those challenges.

Heath Holdaway | President | Ims Masonry

We look at our buildings every day. We go down the freeway: we’re looking at block, we’re looking at brick, we’re looking at stone. That’s where we’ve got to get the younger workforce. We’ve got to get them touching these buildings, grabbing a hammer, looking at finish work, walking inside of here, being able to look at what they’ve accomplished, and get that true pride.

Developing something that can create hands-on opportunities for kids who don’t even know which direction they’re going yet. Then, the other side of it is also battling the whole perception of construction slime. It’s either people who can’t make it, can’t go to school, or unfortunately, a lot of undocumented workers that are in the trade. Somehow, we need to change that perception.

Troy Gregory | President | Hunt Electric

The whole labor shortage, that’s something we’ve been focused on for several years. We need to be building excitement with our neighbors and with the community, and trying to get people excited about these jobs. We’ve had a lot of success working with parents and educators. When you go in there and can actually show some of the career paths, I think that’s a critical thing, they get behind it. The average age of an electrician in the United States is 57 years old. We need to be looking long-term and really starting to fill these jobs and bring people in. Our best people come from guys that come up through the trade and know the trade inside and out.

Craig Zwick | Chairman Of The Advisory Board | Zwick Construction Company

The other thing that is worthy of really identifying is the quality internship programs. When you take somebody that’s young, that’s got a propensity for trade and vocational skill sets, they become naturals. This ‘millennial deal’ is a huge thing. Their attitudes, their mobility, their lack of stay-with-it, can all be changed if they get that change quickly. So what are we doing with interns? What are we doing with a real awareness, even in good times? Because it’ll cycle, guaranteed it will.

How can we promote the importance of safety in the industry?

Doug Welling | President & CEO | Jacobsen Construction Company

We have a moral imperative that we take care of people and we send them home safe. Safety can be a policy. It has to be something that comes from within. Everybody in the pool is a lifeguard. You don’t just have a safety representative up there watching over the pool, everybody becomes concerned about everybody on the site and you start helping each other. That’s a philosophy and mentality that really pays big dividends. The other thing we’ve learned is that safety and productivity are coupled together: the more safe you can be, the more productive you can be.

Brady Thorn | Vice President | Beehive Insurance Agency

Productivity and safety go hand in hand; increased profitability goes up as well. MOD rates are going down, frequency is down, people are working safer, which is amazing when you look at the payroll that you guys are pumping out.

One of the main challenges that we’re seeing is this labor shortage. A lot of these claims that are coming through the door are that new employee that’s maybe not been screened properly, or has not received appropriate training. Everybody seems to be in such a hurry that, sometimes, we’re letting some slippage take place. That’s one of our main concerns on workers comp is: how do we help these generals? How do we help these subcontractors train these employees? How do we get that into their system?

Grady Marshall | Vice President | Morton & Company

From the employee standpoint, on a safety perspective, we’re seeing one of the unknown risks is a very exhausted workforce. We’re seeing skilled labor not being able to get them into the trades; but the guys that we have, that we’re seeing from a safety perspective, that are in the trade itself, it’s not a very pretty scorecard: number two in suicide and number one in prescription pill abuse. The very best guys are so exhausted that they can’t perform at the level they need to perform at.

What does the design world look like?

James Williams | Architect Construction Engineer | AE Urbia

If the architect is busy today, then the contractor will be busy tomorrow. We used to be excited to get a hotel or an office building. Now, we’ve got investors coming that want two or three hotels, or they want four or five buildings, or they want six or seven industrial buildings all at once, and they want them just as fast as we used to turn out the single buildings.

We work mostly with the private sector. What happens in the private sector usually affects the public sector later. Kind of what we’re seeing from our developers is that construction costs, and the cost of construction in general, is going up, but the lease rates aren’t following as fast as they should. In order to get these projects to pencil, we’re having to show some innovation in design; contractors are having to be innovative as far as the construction, as well as processes.

Roger Jackson | President | FFKR Architects

We see the economy on a slow growth and continuing to grow. Clients are wanting to build stuff. We haven’t done a lot in the developer arena over the years but we are doing more and more now. The institutional clients are busy in building. Staying building. The school districts are bonding and getting money and building stuff.

We have labor problems too. We’re all poaching from each other. We’re actively recruiting at the universities here in the western United States. And it’s finding people who want to work as hard as we want them to work. And our hard work is different from your hard work, my only weapon is the black Sharpie.

Let’s talk about work life balance. Fourteen hour days, seven days a week could be a hard sell.

Andrew Jones | Vice President | Tempest Enterprises

We are so headline driven. Everyone says, don’t show us the means, just show us the end. Just show us the highway. Just show us the pipeline. Just show us the building. While I was walking a job, I remember seeing a street closed to the public. I thought, how could we flip that and open it to the public to see the means of a project? How can we market that, to show them the technological side? To show them, hey, we’re not just building a fort in our dad’s backyard. Construction is the physical means to the end. There’s a real satisfaction and fulfillment in that.

Jason Kilgore | President | Kilgore Companies

Back when I was working in the field, it was a work hard, play hard environment. I look at the employees that we have and the families they are trying to raise. It’s really hard to do that nowadays and have a good influence over your family. Millennials are more along the lines of work smart, play more. How can that influence us? Can we work smarter and have a better influence over our family and our community?

Slade Opheikens | President | R&O Construction

An awesome conversation would have to be with my son who said, “ I wish you would quit telling me what I can’t do and start telling me what needs to be done and I’ll figure it out, I have Google.” This next generation has so much education literally in the palm of their hand, I have to be careful to not trap them into, here’s how I learned, twenty, thirty, forty years ago. They are brighter. They have access to, literally, the world. So now, how do we empower them?

Troy Gregory | President | Hunt Electric

They pick up on technology trends and it’s night and day how fast they get it. They grew up with technology in their hands. I’ve got one of the best operators around, I mean this guys been in the trade for thirty plus years and he was scared to death when we told him he was going to have to use a tablet. You put it in a millennial’s hand and five minutes later they’re showing our veterans, did you know it could do this? And, you can do this.

Brett Nielsen | Vice President Of Operations | Whitaker Construction

One of my colleagues actually made a comment to me that stuck. He said the millennial generation has sailed. If you’re still focusing on that, you’re going to be left behind. Start focusing on Generation Z, because they’re literally the ones that are stepping in and they’re going to be the next ones to replace us.