David Allen, marketing vice president for Seattle-based McKinstry Co., spoke to PCA members about opportunities.

In a meeting scheduled before the nation realized the severity of the economic downturn, the Plumbing Contractors of America’s annual education conference focused on the economy almost as much as on education. PCA, which is part of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, met Nov. 12-14 in Houston.

Education, in fact, offers contractors a path through the economic turmoil, MCAA PresidentJack Wilhelmisaid in his opening remarks, in which he cited the credit crisis, a deepening recession, a decline in revenue for construction companies, and fewer hospitals and office buildings being built.

“During the downturn, step out of your comfort zone to find new markets,” he told PCA members. “You must work as productively as possible.”

Learning about sustainable construction also will help contractors get through the economic slump, Wilhelmi said. Knowledge of building information modeling will be another advantage.

“With BIM, we are uniquely positioned to move to the forefront of a changing construction industry,” he said. “Don’t let it go to GCs and construction managers.”

David Allen, marketing vice president for Seattle-based McKinstry Co., expanded on these themes during his talk, “How Company Positioning Develops Your Business.” Contractors must position themselves as experts in a time when chaos fills the construction industry.

“We own system technology - the only way we don’t own it is if we don’t stay up with it,” Allen said. “BIM is here. If you don’t like it, go to Nordstrom’s. They’re hiring suit salesmen.

“When a customer calls and says we have a problem with a system, don’t ask what system. We own all the building systems.”

Contractors should become experts in sustainable construction so that architects, GCs and property managers don’t claim it as their exclusive domain. The number of existing buildings in this country will provide a wealth of green building opportunities, he said.

“As much as 50 percent of construction in the commercial and industrial sectors will be existing buildings by 2010,” Allen said. “The green building segment will transform each and every existing building in the nation. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems represent the bulk of the work that will be required to reposition existing buildings in the future.”

Another benefit of being an expert in green construction is that it will draw to a company young people who want to save the planet, Allen said. Contractors can execute the plans that will eliminate the country’s dependence on oil as well as provide an environmentally safe infrastructure.

Developing the workforce through training, educational and recreational opportunities is a related initiative that will improve a company.

“Become employee-centric,” Allen said. “We’re putting a micro-brewery in McKinstry because we have 25 people who say they do home brewing.”

Joseph Weintraub, a professor at Babson College, picked up the workforce theme in his presentation, “Developing Your Middle Management.”

“Most managers spend their time with problem people, not the good people,” he told PCA members. “We have to reverse that. We have to focus on the people who are the future of your organization. We tend to ignore them and give them more work.”

Helping middle managers to develop may involve giving them the freedom to fail, Weintraub said. They can’t always be looking over their shoulder or playing it safe.

“We can’t learn from experiences that we don’t have,” he said.