No symbol defined the moment better than this one: UA General President Martin Maddaloni walking around the convention in a polo shirt bearing the MCAA logo.

It was the first convention in which the Mechanical Contractors Association of America and the United Association had a joint meeting of their executive committees. It may have been the first one in which the UA general president and most, if not all, of his cadre stuck around for the entire MCAA convention, held Feb. 1-6 at the Scottsdale Princess Resort in Arizona.

Outgoing president Robert Durr announced attendance of 1,545, the highest in memory. It took the organization by surprise, since registration normally drops following a Hawaiian convention like last year’s. Partly it was due to the new spirit of labor-management cooperation brought in when Maddaloni’s regime took over at the beginning of the year. Partly, too, it was due to business booming almost everywhere for contractors in the commercial-industrial-institutional markets. With the exception of the Northeast and California, business was about as good as it gets in most parts of the country. And most work backlogs show no signs of a imminent slowdown.

Eye-Opener: One of the biggest eye-openers of the convention occurred in the annual program of the National Plumbing Bureau. It was largely turned over to UA training director George Bliss, who revealed a conceptual breakthrough.

The UA training department is veering away from its century-old philosophy that seeks to mold apprentices into well-rounded journeymen. According to Bliss, pipe trades technology is getting too complicated to cover everything in a five-year apprenticeship program. “We may have to have basic education for one or two years, then specialize,” he said. “We will listen to the local (joint apprenticeship) committees to determine their needs.”

As Bliss envisions it, after a year or two, an apprentice might go into a track emphasizing service and repair, or welding, or some other specialty involving advanced skills. The new approach won’t happen right away. It will be phased in, in response to regional needs. But Bliss left no doubt that the UA leadership is committed to change, adding that —“The service market is going to be one of the biggest around. Yet it’s different. Service technicians practice almost a craft unto itself. It requires a person who likes to work alone, who must be a salesman.

“It’s also a market of singles hitters as opposed to the home runs of a big project. But we have a president in Marty Maddaloni who is dedicated to making it happen. He told all the UA representatives at our staff meeting to make it work. We are committed to build service journeymen and apprentices.”

Recruitment Woes: Contractors and union officials alike concede that the caliber of apprenticeship recruits has declined over the years. Training time increasingly must include remedial work in math and reading.

Coupled with the lack of basic skills is the “Generation X” attitude of suppressed ambition. One participant in a small contractor’s roundtable discussion told the story of an apprentice with an absentee problem. When asked why he consistently put in four-day weeks, the youth replied: “Because I can’t make enough to get by in three days.”

Bliss warned that implementing new and improved training programs will cost more money. For its part, the UA has introduced a low-interest credit card program for members, with proceeds to go into training funds.

“In some cases we may need to look at federal funding,” said Bliss. The UA is reluctant to take that approach because whatever comes out of federally funded programs becomes non-proprietary. However, they may end up doing it for programs that are not trade specific, such as safety training. “You must also be prepared to increase training contributions locally,” he added.

Undercurrents: Because of the work volume represented, every MCAA convention offers an unparalleled chance to get a feel for the issues impacting today’s mechanical contracting business. PM was represented at this year’s convention by publisher George Zebrowski, editor Steve Smith and myself. What follows are some of the greatest impressions left on us based on scores of conversations and education programs.

  • Marketing awareness. Most of the largest mechanical contractors now employ a full-time marketing person. Five years ago we would have been hard-pressed to identify more than a handful who did.

    Partly this is in response to MCAA’s promotion of the concept by coming out with a marketing manual and various education programs. This writer also believes it is due in part to an effort by mechanical contractors to seek higher profit alternatives to the competitive bid markets. For most, negotiated work and design/build projects represent a chance to market their value-added expertise over price.

  • “Design/bid” bugs the big guys. Construction users are learning new ways to put subcontractors in a squeeze. Bigger contractors are starting to become fed up with “design/bid” machinations. Certain owners will ask several contractors to come up with designs for a given project. Then they will pick out the best ideas from each, meld them into a single design and put the project out to bid. Mechanical contractors put a lot of effort into their design proposals and don’t like what’s happening one bit.
  • Local labor issues. Despite the unprecedented good relations between MCAA and UA leaders at the national level, many members still spend a lot of time grousing about local union agreements and personalities. Their complaints are never about money. Most concern antiquated work rules or internal jurisdiction problems. An ongoing program of combining UA locals brings a measure of relief. However, labor relations still boil down mostly to the personalities and operating philosophies of local business managers and agents.
  • Safety first. Safety has been put on a pedestal as a construction issue. Most of the medium- to large-size firms have someone on staff functioning as a safety director either in a full-time position or as a significant part of his job. Initially these people might be frowned upon by the field workers but eventually they tend to get accepted.

    Drug testing has become widely accepted as a key component of any safety program. Testing is mandatory with most mechanical contractors. Often they must do it to comply with requirements imposed by owners or GCs. Random testing is relatively rare. Mostly it is done on a pre-employment and suspect basis, and with the blessing of most local unions. Most company policies allow a “dirty” employee to seek help and get a second chance

    Mechanical contractors long ago learned that a top-notch safety record pays off on the bottom line. A low insurance experience record can result in savings that measure hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. GCs in the dog house. My colleagues and I heard more bad-mouthing of general contractors at this convention than ever before.

  • Mechanical contractors are increasingly choosy about the GCs they work for. Many now make it a point to deal directly with owners or construction managers.

    This in itself represents something of a turnaround. In the past I used to hear mechanical contractors gripe more about construction managers. CMs now come across as good guys after so many shenanigans of GCs.

  • “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” The quote comes from Shakespeare, and it falls on receptive ears throughout the mechanical contracting industry. It’s not unusual for a contracting executive to spend half his time dealing with legal issues. Also, the paperwork required on a project nowadays kills more trees than acid rain.
  • White House performance appraisal. Organized labor may have thrown its wholehearted support to President Clinton in the last election, but as a greater president known as Honest Abe once said — “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Here’s what one UA official said to a gathering of contractors —

    “One of the problems I have with the Clinton Administration is that they’re academic snobs. It’s hard to talk to people who think they are above you and know everything.”

    Awards & Honors: A highlight of every MCAA Convention is the presentation of its annual Distinguished Service Award, given to an MCAA member or staff person for extraordinary service to the industry. This year’s recipient was David Nelson of Nelson-Carlson Mechanical Contractors, Rockford, IL. His contributions would take an entire column to list. Among the highlights is that he was instrumental in forming the National Plumbing Bureau of MCAA and has created an extraordinary tool control program that he has shared with both MCAA and NAPHCC.

    The E. Robert Kent Award for mechanical contracting innovation went to McClure Co. of Harrisburg, PA, for their development of labor analysis software to measure jobsite productivity.

Top safety award winners in various size categories from largest to smallest were: Kinetic Systems, Inc., Santa Clara, CA; Natkin & Co. (South Central Region), Dallas, TX; Weigmann & Associates, Inc., St. Charles, MO; Voegele Mechanical, Inc., Philadelphia, PA; Hammond Mechanical Corp., Euclid, OH; Sids Air Conditioning & Heating Co., Inc., Los Angeles, CA; and Temperature Control, Inc., Knoxville, TN.