It's time to get serious about residential training rather than obstruct nonunion efforts to do so.

Where I grew up, crossing a picket line was akin to spitting in church. These blue-collar roots have left me with a lingering sympathy for unions, and so has history's legacy of better lives for working people thanks to the efforts of organized labor. Yeah, some unions have a sordid track record of violence and corruption, but if you're going to rattle the skeletons in labor's closet don't forget to resurrect the goon squads and financial crimes attached to the other side as well.

Alas, this pro-union heart finds it hard to bleed much for organized labor these days. Its goal of social justice has morphed into protection of gilded interests. It's hard to muster much sympathy for laid-off auto workers stashed in those misnamed “job banks” where they receive full pay and benefits for doing nothing. Today's union ranks are filled with more government bureaucrats than people who get their hands dirty and bloodied. In my hometown of Chicago, too many trade shows are hightailing it to other cities due to featherbedding work rules among the unions working at the city's otherwise splendid exhibition facilities.

Residential Neglect

Some unions have become better at obstructing social and economic justice rather than standing for it. A recent example has to do with an HVACR program at Long Island's Suffolk County Community College (SCCC) that leads to a two-year Associate's Degree. Many HVACR contractors in the region think it's a fine program and look to it as a prime recruiting ground for technicians.

On the other hand, a coalition of construction unions has mounted an effort to prevent government money being used for a proposed expansion of the SCCC facility. Along the way, unions decided they'd like to see a complete end to the HVACR curriculum, which they deem in conflict with existing union apprenticeship programs. Many contractors in the region say that no union apprenticeship program in the area provides comprehensive training for residential and light commercial markets like the SCCC program does.

This is a common complaint around the country. Nobody is a bigger fan than I am of the UA's training efforts. Nobody has written more favorably about them more often than I have. (See August 2005 PM, “The Industry At Its Best,” for the most recent effort.) Yet, anyone with eyesight can tell that the UA aims the bulk of its training resources toward heavy construction. Some UA locals have stepped up service training, but most of those efforts are geared to commercial service work and consume a small portion of resources compared with construction training.

Union residential service contractors are extinct in most parts of the country. Those that remain mostly are clustered in old cities of the Northeast and Midwest, but are a distinct minority compared with nonunion shops in their marketplaces. I have many friends among these union signatories, and most confide that they prefer to recruit technicians on their own rather than go through the hiring hall.

That's because most union plumbers turn their noses up at residential service work or are not cut out for it. Some might consent to do it for a while if they're riding the bench, but that's just biding time until a big project comes along. Many of these journeymen have trouble making the transition from the rough-hewn culture of construction jobsites to a role that requires schmoozing with Mr. & Mrs. Homeowner.

Union officials usually don't mind it when residential signatories hire from outside the union as long as the recruits end up with union cards. The added membership is a good deal for the union. But what's in it for the service contractor - except buying labor peace by adhering to a labor agreement they could easily live without?

In many places around the country, the unions have wielded political muscle to prevent Bureau of Apprenticeship Training (BAT) certification of various nonunion training programs. The unions always argue that the nonunion programs are vastly inferior to union apprenticeship training. That's probably true in many cases. But would it make sense to shut down every university that falls short of Ivy League standards?

Maybe some of these programs don't deserve BAT approval. Let the BAT appointees decide that without political interference. These battles have been raging for years and, in light of today's market realities, have grown tiresome and counterproductive.

Controlling Labor Supply

I have enormous respect for the United Association. Their dedication to training and craftsmanship is genuine, and gives them a reason for being that transcends collective bargaining. They are quick to adapt new technologies and techniques to improve the technical skills of pipe trades workers. Now the time has come for equally progressing thinking in the way they market themselves.

A tongue-in-cheek definition of insanity is doing things the same way over and over and expecting different results. By now it must be clear that the tactics of obstructionism have done nothing to reverse the decades-long trend of market and membership loss by the construction unions. A change in thinking is overdue.

The construction unions cling to an antiquated notion of controlling the supply of skilled labor. It's not in their interest to train more workers than can be employed by signatory contractors, so they calibrate the size of apprenticeship classes accordingly. This strategy gained them considerable leverage back in the days when union crews were putting up 60-70 percent of everything built. Those days are long gone. Unions today own less than a third of total construction market share, according to most estimates.

As a result, the pipe trades and the construction industry in general have been plagued by a shortage of skilled labor for the last 10-15 years. Nonetheless, this period has coincided with the largest construction boom ever seen in this country. How could this happen? Obviously, owners, GCs and subcontractors have learned to adapt in various ways to a smaller, less skilled labor force. This has made the unions and their vaunted training programs less relevant to the construction industry.

Lashing out at nonunion training does nothing to make them more relevant. It's time to start competing against inferior programs in a positive way.

The Power Of Positive Thinking

Marketing professionals understand that you don't advance your cause by tearing down competitors. Positive messages sell better than negative ones.

The UA and other trade unions have a great story to tell about their training. It's just that they've reached a comfort zone in the commercial-industrial marketplace where they are still competitive and against nonunion contractors. Even with higher labor costs, union crews frequently gain an edge through greater productivity and fewer mistakes. The bigger and more complicated the project, the more likely it will be to find a union contractor doing the work.

However, there are only so many big projects to go around, and that market is volatile.Homebuilding, remodeling and repair are where the vast bulk of construction dollars get spent year after year. If the construction unions are ever going to reverse their decline and grow, they need to find a way to compete in those markets.

They need to devise a separate training track for residential plumbers. Some adjustment in apprenticeship recruiting might be needed, with people skills considered along with mechanical aptitude. Customer service and salesmanship need to be part of the training curriculum. Many union stalwarts no doubt are twitching with indignation at the mention of “sales” in conjunction with their beloved trade, but if that's what's needed for signatory contractors to prosper, unions would be wise to help them out. Done right, selling can be a dignified and honorable way to earn a living. The UA knows how to teach things right.

Residential PHC contractors are desperate for capable service technicians. Many nonunion firms would be willing to become UA signatories if it would guarantee them a steady supply. Few see it happening at present.

If the UA truly devoted itself to becoming a supplier of residential service plumbers, they could do a heck of a job and render many nonunion apprenticeship and vo-tech programs extinct in the process. That would be the way to go about it.

And along the way it would help build their ranks. This is something that never seems to happen when they destroy a nonunion training program just out of habit.

Olsztynski At ISH NA

Don't miss Jim's program, "50 Simple Tips To Boost Your Business Writing," to be presented at this year's ISH North America trade show in Chicago, Sept. 28-30. "It's guaranteed to freak out some English teachers," Jim says.