On taking over as president of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee, Scott Heberlein found himself staring down both an old problem and a rather new one.
The old one facing the senior vice president at Mortenson Construction – a persistent workforce shortage – has been weighing on the industry at least since the Great Recession of the late 2000s. The new one – inflation – was almost unthinkable nearly two years ago when the pandemic struck.
Now both threaten to hold back the Wisconsin and U.S. construction industries as projects pick up pace amid the economic optimism brought about by declining COVID-19 numbers and the anticipation of federal infrastructure spending. Fortunately, Heberlein thinks neither problem is insoluble.
“The good news is that with the supply chain, for instance, we are starting to see some of that trend in the right direction,” Heberlein said. “Of course, we don’t know what the future will hold. But certainly one of the services we can provide as an association is to help contractors predict what their next challenges will be and then help industry navigate around those.”
Heberlein’s penchant for problem-solving no doubt was at least partly instilled in him by his father, a civil engineer whose work as a state employee contributed to the construction of the Pettit National Ice Center and Kohl Center. When it was time for college, Heberlein found himself enrolling in UW-Madison’s civil-engineering program. His choice of having an emphasis in construction came after he recognized how much he loved seeing projects take shape in the physical environment.
He joined Mortenson shortly after graduating and has remained there even since. The many projects he has contributed to include work at both the Froedtert hospital campus near Wauwatosa and the Columbia St. Mary’s campus in Mequon. He recently sat down with The Daily Reporter to discuss his plans for the AGC of Greater Milwaukee and the current state of the industry. (This article has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
The Daily Reporter: What do you think will be the AGC of Greater Milwaukee’s priorities this year?
Heberlein: I think we see our role as being to educate and help provide guidance. And certainly the changing guidance that has been coming as it relates to COVID and the OSHA (vaccine mandate), which is currently stayed. Will that remain or will that come back? What is going to happen this year? I think it’s anyone’s guess. We just want to advocate for the industry and help our members understand whatever guidance or mandates that exist.
TDR: What do you expect to see from the federal infrastructure bill this year?
Heberlein: There is a lot of excitement within the industry about where we see Milwaukee going. And the infrastructure bill is certainly a part of that. We’ve had a lot of very prominent projects in the last several years. We may have seen a little pause during the pandemic. But, fortunately, I don’t think any big projects were canceled or have gone away. So there is certainly excitement and optimism in the industry.
TDR: What does the prospect of so much work mean for the labor shortage?
Heberlein: Workforce development is one of our focus areas, and it has been for a long time. We have maybe seen that there is less interest among individuals about going into the trades workforce and maybe not as many are coming in as compared with those who are retiring. So we do need to cast a wider net to bring more people into the industry. That means deliberately reaching out to a more diverse group of people for talent.
We do have hands-on partnerships with groups like WRTP|Big Step, Employ Milwaukee and Building Advantage. And we are trying to partner with local highs schools in our region to say: These are great career opportunities. And there is a resurgence. There are more opportunities in high school. And I think organizations like the AGC have been a big part of that.
TDR: What about supply shortages and inflation?
Heberlein: Certainly the supply-chain challenges we’ve seen have created pricing issues. We saw that manifest itself throughout the bulk of 2021. So, yeah, we’re trying to figure out from a public-policy and industry-relations standpoint how we can use the construction industry’s voice to advocate for best practices to make the building process more efficient and less wasteful.
TDR: What specific steps can the industry or is the industry already taking to deal with inflation?
Heberlein: Industrializing the construction process. This means finding out how we can make it simpler easier to construct in the field and pulling back further as we look how we are designing the building and how does that translate into the facility construction. Follow @TDR_WLJDan