When it comes to discussions around the construction industry, the worldwide reaction to the pandemic is front and center in many people’s minds. Angie Simon, President of Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), lauded the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) industry for its ability to survive, persevere and embrace the challenges while riding an emotional roller coaster. “Never would we have expected the entire economy to shut down in one day,” she said.
As a result of those challenges, Simon observed that contractors focused on deeper connections with their clients and friends. “We all needed to stick together as a community and a country,” she explained.
Contractors had already been through the 2008 recession, when they needed to diversify and broaden their services to keep as many of their workers employed as possible. In addition, they got creative and embraced technology – becoming, as Simon described it, “lean and mean.” She made clear her pride in the way the toughened-up industry weathered the pandemic-economy. “We never stopped building,” she said.
Building information modeling (BIM) has become expected, not optional, as well as productivity tracking and rejection of the old adage, “That’s how we’ve always done it.” Simon explained that companies now think in terms of, What can we do to build it faster, safer and less expensively? She added, “Unless they were willing to invest in technology, they would get left in the dust.”
As MEP companies increased their efficiencies, they developed leaner, more competitive shops. Adoption of prefabrication resulted in safer work in more controlled environments. She emphasized, “Prefab and modularization are here to stay.”
It was the openness to change and embracing new technology which enabled the industry to quickly respond to the changes caused by the reaction to the pandemic. Contractors were deemed essential services, so they were able to continue to work.
Simon described the new fight on the horizon as the imminent “retirement of 40% of the workforce.” The exit of baby boomers will be a challenge that needs to be faced, she explained, adding, “We need to look for workers where we haven’t before.” She also asserted that companies need to get the secret out that MEP is “a great industry that pays well.”
The SMACNA organization is trying to create a diversified future and share that the trades offer attractive, inviting careers. Simon encouraged companies to share the great stories of the industry and the pride a worker can take in “building something with your hands.”
To that end, SMACNA is involved in the Heavy Metal Summer Experience aimed primarily at high schoolers. The summer camp highlights careers that don’t require a college degree and can broaden the horizons of the generation that, as Simon put it, “grew up in a paperless society.” The camp has the potential to launch workers into future building industry careers, showing them viable options. Simon hopes to expand the Summer Experience widely across the country. “It’s a total win-win for everybody,” she said. “I can’t wait to see where we will take this industry next.”
To hear Angie Simon’s entire keynote address on Day 3 of MEP Force 2021 and watch the SMACNA video about Heavy Metal Summer Experience, you can access it on-demand at the MEP Force 2021 agenda.