For MCAA’s new President Brian Helm, technology is not just a passion, but a way of life. Helm is the president of Freeport, Illinois-based Mechanical Inc., part of the Helm Group of companies, which operates in the healthcare, industrial, education, aquatic, water/wastewater treatment, government, high rise, energy and mission critical sectors. Helm pinpoints technology as both a great opportunity as well as the largest challenge mechanical contractors are facing today. He calls it a great recruiting tool, proving to younger generations that construction is not just an old-school industry that cannot change with the times. PM had the chance to catch up with Helm at MCAA19 in Phoenix.
PM: When and how did you get your start in the industry?
BH: I grew up in a construction family. From a very young age, my brother and I were operating excavators and loaders on the land where we grew up. I couldn’t wait to turn 16 so that I could work summers on the jobsite and in the shop. It was a real thrill to see new projects being built and knowing that I had a small part in making it happen. I was able to work with a lot of different construction trades, but I saw that the mechanical scope is the real heart of the job, and I knew that was where I wanted to make an impact.
PM: What made you join MCAA?
BH: As a fifth generation business owner, and second generation mechanical contractor, the decision to join MCAA was made for me. My father, a great contractor, taught me what I needed to learn. He said, it would be great if you were always union, always an MCAA member — and you should always drive an American car! It seemed simple, so I did it. That’s the way I like it – simple ideas and complicated projects.
PM: Did you ever think you would be president of an organization like MCAA?
BH: I have always been active in various community and industry associations, but it was a big stretch to imagine being president of MCAA. My first convention was in 2002 when Smitty Belcher was president and I saw how involved the president becomes in all aspects of the industry. With each new president, I’ve watched how hard they work to improve the association and the industry. It’s really a huge honor for me to be chosen.
PM: What are MCAA’s top three initiatives in 2019?
BH: Our long-standing Safety Excellence, Career Development and National Education initiatives are as important to our members as ever. Our newer Technology Initiative gains in importance every day as technology continues to evolve at lightning pace. Keeping our members ahead of the technology change curve is one of the most important things our association can do.
PM: What pressing legislative/regulatory issues are you following in 2019?
BH: We continue to press forward with our several-year effort to get Congress to enact pension reform legislation. I'm of course talking about the option trustees would have to adopt a so-called composite pension plan. As MCAA's new president I will assure the membership that MCAA will continue the fight in 2019.
We are working toward gaining passage of a strong infrastructure rebuilding measure – with a strong workforce development feature. At the same time, we want to ensure that Federal prevailing wage and workforce development policies, contracting protections and public agencies’ ability to use project labor agreements are preserved.
We need to be sure that any discussion of paid family and medical leave measures consider the unique nature of construction multiemployer jobsite work performance. And, we need to be sure that the collective bargaining process and benefits administration are respected.
We have some direct federal project reforms on subcontractor selection and payment withholding. And, we are tracking union apprenticeship reform legislation and regulatory proposals. We need to protect the sound operation of our building trades apprenticeship system.
PM: With the looming workforce shortage, what are some of MCAA’s development efforts? Are you seeing tangible results from these programs?
BH: MCAA leads the industry when it comes to career development. This month, we will be chartering one more student chapter, bringing the number of MCAA student chapters at colleges and universities across North America to 59. Hundreds of our member companies hire college students as interns every year, many with financial grants from our foundation. MCAA facilitates that process with job fairs at our annual GreatFutures Forum and a job board on our MCAAGreatFutures.org website. Events at our annual convention, like the Student Chapter Exhibit and the Student Union, also connect contractors and students. Our annual student chapter competition is the most challenging and thought-provoking in construction.
Our labor partner, the United Association, established the VIP Program, an award-winning program that provides active-duty military members a career pathway in civilian life through the piping trades. MCAA's Women in the Mechanical Industry (WiMI) program is empowering women to further enrich and enhance their careers through networking, education, mentoring and career development opportunities beyond those already offered through membership in MCAA. The group will hold its first conference in Chicago in June.
PM: Where do you see the biggest opportunities for MCAA members over the next few years? How can they take advantage of these opportunities?
BH: Advances in technology will enable members to continue to enhance their productivity and profitability. As I mentioned earlier, MCAA’s Construction Technology Initiative is laser-focused on educating our members so that they are prepared to take advantage of these opportunities.
PM: What is the greatest challenge your members will face in 2019 and what is MCAA doing to help them face it?
BH: Staying up with the technology change curve. Building Information Modeling (BIM) has increasingly become a project requirement and it is requiring contractors to adapt. It isn’t something that can be done overnight. It takes years and an investment in hardware, training and manpower to become good at it. The good news is that once your company integrates BIM into its processes, it opens a lot of opportunities to increase productivity.
PM: What does the future hold for the industry?
BH: The future is now, at least when it comes to technology. For example, we have all been hearing a lot about the future of augmented and virtual reality. They are, in fact, already part of our industry. We can use a 3D laser scanner to pull full representations of the real world into a BIM model. Our BIM technicians review drawings in virtual reality today. We fabricate as much of our work as possible ahead of time to make jobsite installation faster and safer. We use robotic total stations on almost every project to accurately measure and place. MCAA's members are even using the Microsoft HoloLens to provide augmented reality on the jobsite - today. Many things we just a few years ago thought were science fiction are part of how we work today.
PM: What do contractors need to know to stay on top of these trends?
BH: As I mentioned before, MCAA’s Construction Technology Initiative is leading the industry with training programs and ongoing research. For example, our latest report showed that investing in the right BIM workstation system can increase VDC teams’ productivity.
PM: What is the No. 1 thing you want to accomplish in your time as MCAA president?
BH: I'm passionate about the need for involvement in our industry. By that I mean that this isn't an industry that you just work in; it's an industry whose strength and progress depends on the contributions of everyone who is privileged to be part of it.
You can't contribute if you're not involved. That's the beauty of MCAA; it is the perfect vehicle through which to get involved and contribute to your industry's strength and progress. That is a message I will convey throughout my presidency.
PM: If you could travel back in time to when you first got your start in the industry, what piece of advice would you share with yourself?
BH: You make or break a project in the field. Everything the office does needs to make it easier for the people in the field to do their jobs.