IT education a priority;
2,200 crowd into Maui Convention;
UA training initiatives an eye-opener

High technology is merely a rumor to most mechanical contractors. Less than one third of a class raised their hands when asked whether their companies were doing 3-D computer modeling of project drawings. Only four hands shot up in a class of about 30 when asked if their company had a full-time Information Technology (IT) department. Only three in the same class said they participated in Web-based project management.

All this happened among a group encompassing the country's most sophisticated mechanical contractors. Something seems out of sync here, and maybe that's why the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) chose to highlight IT as the educational focal point of its 2001 Annual Convention held Feb. 11-15 in a slice of paradise on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

A total of 10 sessions spanning seven topics (three were repeated) dealt with IT. A couple of simple yet imaginative presentations included "Basics of Excel" and "Basics of PowerPoint" to bring members up to speed on two of the business world's most popular software programs. The other IT programs were devoted to CAD/CAM and using the Internet in various ways. Here are some insights gleaned by this reporter after attending these sessions:

  • The construction industry is five to 20 years behind most others in adapting IT. Think of how long retailers and grocers have used automated scanners, for instance. A variety of explanations are offered, led by the fact that construction is performed by disparate participants with their own requirements. No central unifying entity exists to pull IT technology together for everyone.

  • Many dot-coms have tried to become the portal for the construction industry, but the mechanical contracting industry remains uninspired by these efforts. Online procurement seems most appropriate for commodity items. For complex equipment, vendor support is more important to contractors than convenience or saving a few dollars. Besides, it's not any harder to pick up the phone to call a supplier than to do business online.

  • 3-D computer-aided modeling (CAM) is a wondrous technology, but many contractors feel their 2-D CAD systems are adequate to the task. CAM is clearly superior to CAD, but requires significant investment in computer upgrades. (A minimum of 256 MB of RAM is recommended for CAM.)

  • Construction-related IT is still in its infancy. It will likely get a boost with continuing improvements in wireless transmission technology.

High In The Saddle

MCAA's Maui convention drew an overflow crowd of some 2,200 registrants. The main ballroom at the headquarters Grand Wailea Resort, reputedly one of the largest in the country, could barely contain the assembly. It was reported that MCAA's membership has risen in the last five years from about 1,300 companies to upwards of 2,000.

MCAA's typical star-studded lineup of guest speakers was highlighted by keynoter Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon. The convention concluded with the earthier growls of football legend Mike Ditka.

UA general president Marty Maddaloni also gave his customary address at the closing session, focusing on recruitment and training efforts. Maddaloni was present throughout the convention at a variety of functions, emblematic of the fact that labor relations between MCAA and the UA are at a high point based on this reporter's 17 years of experience covering this industry. Various UA representatives also were featured as speakers on several programs at the convention.

One attended by this reporter was a session sponsored by the Plumbing Contractors of America (PCA), MCAA's new affiliate for members who do plumbing work. They heard from UA special representatives Gary Hamilton and Don House explaining UA initiatives to capture more residential work (Hamilton), and better compete in the service market via a national service agreement (House).

Training Report

UA training director George Bliss also addressed the PCA group and provided some eye-opening information about the UA's efforts to address the pressing issues of apprenticeship recruitment and training. Highlights:
  • The UA documents spending more than $100 million a year in training to support more than 400 schools. Upwards of 100,000 UA apprentices and members undergo training every year.

  • The number of UA apprentices has risen from about 11,000 four years ago to more than 30,000 at present. The goal is to recruit 50,000.

  • UA apprentices now get college credit for their training. Each apprentice is assigned a laptop computer in order to keep pace with modern technology.

  • The UA has accredited 116 technical schools to date. Apprentices recruited from these accredited schools and from certain military programs who pass a UA test get to bypass the first two years of UA apprenticeship.

  • The UA has established regional schools in Jackson, Miss., and Watertown, Conn., for training in specialized skills such as medical gas and high purity piping. Another regional training center is being built in Peekskill, N.Y. These facilities have been paid for by the UA's so-called "nickel fund," a sometimes controversial 5 cents an hour disbursement built into agreements around the country. Bliss reported taking in $11 million through the nickel fund in 2000.

High Honors

MCAA's prestigious Distinguished Service Award for lifetime industry service was presented to William A. Bianco, Jr., founder and president of Kinetic Systems Inc., a California firm specializing in high purity piping.

The E. Robert Kent Award for Management Innovation went to Wisconsin's J. F. Ahern Co., for its "Estimate to Invoice" program. Over an 18-month period, the company's Pipe Fabrication Division restructured its work flow, eliminated inefficiencies and redundancies, automated many processes, and devised measurements of progress.