Rasch: Tell us a little bit about the Plumbing, Mechanical and Sheet Metal Contractors Alliance, or PMSMCA, and your role.
Kowalski: The PMSMCA is a member organization comprised of signatory contractors (to Local 18, Local 75 and Local 601) and the businesses that support them. We’re governed by two separate Boards who meet and share an Executive Committee. A primary function of the Alliance is to work with Labor on collaborative issues and, when the time comes, negotiate the labor agreements on behalf of the contractors. In addition, we strive to provide educational opportunities for members, to create fun and valuable business development programming and to be the voice of our members with local, state and nationally elected officials.
Rasch: When you consider opportunities and challenges in your role it’s inevitable that the COVID 19 pandemic comes to mind. Looking back, what was the impact on business during the pandemic? How did it impact Southeast Wisconsin in terms of work?
Kowalski: I’d only had one-year under my belt when COVID 19 hit. It really made me value the structure and organization that not only our members have, but what this association provided. Our experience as an Association enabled us to control communications and prioritize activities amidst a lot of uncertainty for our members. Collectively, we’ve been lucky to keep working and business in Southeast Wisconsin hasn’t slowed down. Sharing our safety-driven priorities with union partners enabled a very, VERY quick rebound after the initial shock of the pandemic. An emphasis on increased safety on the job site was embraced because the work had to get done.
We’ve used historical data to determine that Milwaukee has a relatively consistent level of building and mechanical contracting work. We’ve been able to maintain this throughout the past two years. This steadiness enables our members to plan, along with the unions, so that we can keep people working and keep customer’s project timelines on schedule.
It’s good to see cranes up throughout Metro Milwaukee. As we look down the road at pandemic-impacted activities, one of the big variables that we haven’t put our brain around yet is how the infusion of the infrastructure money is going to impact our customers and then our contractors. The reality is when it does come, we’re going to need people. And you can’t just roll out of bed and do this work, it’s highly specialized.
Rasch: As a contractor alliance, you certainly have an interest in making sure that there are enough skilled workers entering the pipeline. Can you tell us some of the things that that you and your contractor Alliance are doing to build up this pipeline?
Kowalski: Workforce was the part of this job that I most closely resonated with when I switched careers in 2019. I’d spent the previous 15 years in higher education and believe that training and education are the keys to creating a better life for individuals and their families. The Alliance, through our partnerships with Local 75, 18 & 601, has a robust enterprise supporting the workforce pipeline. The shared oversight of the Joint Apprenticeship Training Centers (JATC’s) is the secret ingredient in our workforce development recipe. Over the last few years, we’ve invested in the workforce infrastructure at MPS’s Obama High School where they’ve partnered with MATC and some of our contractors. Another recent highlight is the development of a program with Milwaukee Academy of Science, Milwaukee Tool and our JATC’s. As a function of my role at the Alliance I’m the chairman of the BIG STEP board. BIG STEP continues to make workforce investments so that any individual has the opportunity to enter the building construction trades through a registered apprenticeship.
There’s a lot that we’ve gotten right, and I think that’s testament to the fact that we’ve largely had enough workers to get the work done. Ultimately, we’re offering a challenging yet attainable career path to our members. The challenge remains as demographics shift: how do we get more people interested in the trades?
It would seem that there has been a decades long effort to train young people and their families to see that college is the only choice for post high school education. But this just isn’t true. We all need to be better at embracing post-secondary alternatives to college and a registered apprenticeship is a pathway to a better life for many people. I always say, when there’s a dinner party in the Milwaukee suburbs and the parents are as excited to say their child is going to become a plumbing apprentice as they are to say my son or daughter is going to UW-Madison, that’s when we’ll be in a good spot.
We must connect with new groups of people and show them what this career can be. College isn’t for everybody, but having a good career, making good money, and positively impacting your community by building and sustaining the structures around us can be pretty fulfilling. Not just financially, but personally, and we need to get the word out about that.
Rasch: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges the industry faces in terms of workforce?
Kowalski: The Midwest’s population has been declining for years. To a certain degree we’re playing a numbers game as we strive to attract young people to the trades versus another career path. There needs to be a new level of flexibility amongst contractors in terms of bringing on new people. They may need to spend more time training new apprentices on the job site which is difficult from the contractor’s perspective. Financial margins are tight on every project. Having additional journeypeople on site to support and train new apprentices can negatively impact those margins. However, if there is an unwillingness to bring on new apprentices, there will be a workforce gap and stagnation in the growth of the whole program. Not every apprentice is going to complete the program and for some contractors, it’s hard to accept that their time and money may be wasted. This is a very rationale response. Accordingly, the JATCs need to be more effective when evaluating apprentices and training them. Change is hard, but we need to have a ton of support within the industry to build up our workforce.
Rasch: Where do you think negotiations for your members are heading into next year as you work with the employers to negotiate with the unions especially with all these other countervailing forces of inflation, material cost spikes and the like?
Kowalski: That is, literally, the “million-dollar question.” I was able to participate in some negotiations this spring by supporting other contractor groups around the state. There was a lot of concern on both sides about the current inflation rates. Raises are going to happen and it’s important that we’re taking care of employees and supporting that growth responsibly. Labor needs to be conscientious of the contractor’s position. There’s a lot of pressure points on employers with increased material and overhead costs. Over the next 12 months the Alliance will be conducting a lot of informal meetings with labor to maintain that communication outside of negotiations.
Rasch: What are some hot topics for your industry over the next year and beyond?
Kowalski: The potential of receiving Federal Infrastructure money is a big one. And, if you want to frustrate a business owner right now, bring up gasoline prices. Many contractors have reverted to a past practice recently to help offset fuel costs by building fees into their project costs. The contract negotiation coming up next year is also going to be a hot topic. We collectively will start working on that in earnest towards the end of 2022.
In our Milwaukee Market it’s always good to think about the next big project. Our contractors have a very strong track record of success. Our reputation is tremendous with general contractors and developers and our market share is solid.
It’s the Alliance’s imperative to develop stronger relationships with new political leadership at the local and state level and to continue to drive business towards the contractors we serve. Swirling behind everything are the new certifications and requirements that are being put into state and local building code changes. Whether they benefit our members or not is where we as an association and our lobbyists at the state level will be active. This is an exciting industry and if you’re only doing one thing at a time, you’re letting a lot of stuff go.
Rasch: There’s going to be an energy transformation in our country in the next decade. How is the green energy wave going to impact your industry?
Kowalski: When we talk about energy efficiency, we first advise our customers to take an honest look at their current facility or building to see whether upgrades or changes are worth the investment. The good news is that the return on investment for many upgrades can be quantified, so business owners will know if changes are worthwhile for their situation. Our contractors believe in healthy buildings, and a lot of business owners can see the long-term benefits of adding solar roofs or upgrading their indoor ventilation systems. In places like schools, studies have shown that better air quality and air conditioning leads to better learning outcomes in students. There are a lot of benefits to adding or upgrading systems to be more environmentally conscious across every market and I think with more demand we’ll see costs start to decrease a bit.
What I love about our workforce partnerships is that we can train people at the highest level to get them certified in latest technologies. We know that when a customer says, “we want this”, we’ve got people either ready to go or we can quickly get them trained to take on that work. It’s crucial for the union construction industry to stay on top of building trends and maintain our reputation as a highly trained industry.