The Partners in Progress Leadership Forum

Industry leaders share meaningful insights into current industry challenges and priorities.

From right to left: Dushaw Hockett, Carol Duncan, Mike Coleman, Aaron Hilger and Joseph Powell.

At Partners in Progress, Moderator Dushaw Hockett, Founder and Executive Director of SPACEs, got to sit down with a panel of industry leaders to ask some burning questions from the industry and the audience during the session titled, “Fireside Chat with SMART/SMACNA Leadership: A Q&A Session.”

The panel consisted of Carol Duncan, SMACNA President; Aaron Hilger, SMACNA CEO; Mike Coleman, SMART General President; and Joseph Powell, SMART General Secretary-Treasurer.

Here are some of the highlights from this insightful Q&A.

Q. What priorities do you have for our industry?

Coleman: Getting workforce to these big megaprojects and getting workforce to the areas that have megaprojects, so those companies are able to keep and secure their core work. Organizing is our biggest priority right now. The second part of that is addressing issues that come with this new workforce, which is made up of more minorities and females. For instance, maternity leave is becoming more of an issue, and childcare has been an issue, but the needs for both are growing. We want to help solve the problem of affordable childcare for our members and employees. 

Duncan: We want to make sure that everyone is aware of the tools and best practices available as far as recruiting and retention are concerned, so people know how to attract and keep employees. 

Q. This is concerning the theme of partnerships. It’s nice to have such a great national management partnership, but how can we replicate that at the local level? What advice do you suggest on building strong labor management partnerships at the local level?

Hilger: it’s easy and hard. I have relationships with all of the basic trades and work with them on a daily basis. We work on boards together, and every week we solve problems together. We could have spent all of our time fighting about those 5% to 10% of the things we didn’t agree on, but we deliberately chose to focus on the things we did agree on so we could make progress. 

Coleman: When I first came into labor management, the relationship wasn’t great. But I capitalized on this opportunity to get a fresh start. Some things we did were fun, such as helping out at charities together or working on common goals. We engaged politicians, and we did it together. The things we did together weren’t always about contract negotiations or issues within the industry; sometimes we got together just to have a beer or go to ball game. This made a huge different in our relationship, how we addressed issues and talked to each other, and how we built mutual respect. Also remember the stress you’re experiencing; your counterpart is under the same stress. You’ll never accomplish by yourself more than you’ll accomplish together.

Hilger: if you are a chapter executive or business manager, take a good look at your job. If you look at each other’s jobs, you’ll find they are a lot more alike than you think they are. 

Q. The workforce shortage is a recurring theme. What are we doing to address the workforce shortage and what can we do to recruit and retain more workers?

Powell: In our efforts to help incentivize people from other areas to travel to locations with megaprojects, we created a travel incentive program. If you are from a “Stabilization Agreement for the Sheet Metal Industry (SASMI) local, you have the opportunity to apply for an additional benefit through SASMI to assist you with your traveling expenses. You will need to work with your local office to fill out the appropriate paperwork. 

Hilger: We are recruiting in areas where union density is very low and facilities to recruit and train are small. We’re recreating a whole new structure as we do this and bringing in individuals who many have never found our industry. 

Duncan: We have built strategic alliances with contractors in various states where contractors have reached out to us to help manufacture and get equipment to job sites. Those are alliances that can work for us long term. If you are able to reach out to another contractor and create a partnership, that has proven to be a good strategy. 

Coleman: Something else we’ve done is increase staff for the purpose of organizing. We’ve added staff the last year and created a team that goes into locals where they have an increased need for workforce based on megaprojects or a series of large projects. They go in and analyze and figure out what we can do to address any problems. Some answers come out of these meetings. For instance, we've been increasing swift training through ITI, so people are able to learn the basics or whatever skills they need to get in on a project. For years, people would give us a hard time for letting retirees come back into the workforce, but we have 11 locals right now that have met the criteria for allowing retirees back into the workforce for a period of time, and they are taking advantage of that. We’re doing everything we can to address this issue. We’re always looking for other things we can be doing. 

Q. Knowing what you know today, what would you say to your past self to get yourself to join a local union or get into this industry?

Coleman: If you join our organization or our industry, you have a chance at good middle class life with great benefits and great retirement and a chance to be part of a brotherhood and sisterhood that can help you with any problem you have. 
Duncan: Join SMACNA sooner. I joined 15 years after I started in the industry. The knowledge I gained and the generosity of the people in the industry helped my business grow, so I’d have joined sooner.

Hilger: You can make an impact.

Powell: It’s not a job, it’s a career.

Q. There are unions and contractors out there expanding market share. What are they doing right that the rest of us could learn from?

Duncan: This takes making an investment as a contractor. You have to be willing to invest resources long term to see success in those markets. You won’t get success overnight. Stay the course. Make sure you have the right people. If you don’t have the right people or the right champion in place, it doesn’t work. I’ve been fortunate I’ve had champions and markets to run with, but that’s how you build market share and expand markets over the long term.