IBJ: How is construction doing in the metro area?
Nelson: For the year we’re probably up 3 to 5 percent over last year. July was a great month — probably the best in the last 18 months. We had 2 million man-hours in July. When we were in our boom in 2006 and 2007 we were making 2.2 million to 2.3 million man-hours every month. My goal is 25 million for the year. I’m not going to get there this year but a little bit at a time — a little bit at a time. If I can get 2 million man-hours in August and September, that’ll give me some wind in my sails.
IBJ: Most of the big projects like the Mississippi River bridge, Phillips 66 and Prairie States Energy Campus have come to an end. Are those man-hours coming from a lot of smaller jobs?
Nelson: I think that’s what we live and die on. Everybody wants to bang the drum for the big jobs but it’s not the big jobs that keep us going. It’s the little storefronts and remodels and home additions. When we were in our boom in 2006, half of those man-hours came from residential jobs.
IBJ: How’s housing construction going?
Nelson: It’s showing an increase in the 3 to 6 percent range. A lot of the homes and retirement centers and apartment buildings are panelized. Panelization is where they come in with the wood panels already assembled and you just pick them up, set them down and brace them. We have three big jobs that were scheduled to be panelized, but they had to cancel panelization because they can’t get the panels. The panel shops are topped out. They can’t do any more. I need 100 framing carpenters by the end of September to start framing because these all have to be stick framed now. There are no panels available. You can only make so many panels in a minute. These panel factories work on these hydraulics where the lumber comes in and little pins come up and the lumber goes in between the pins and the nailer comes down and nails them all together. It’s quite an operation, but again, it’s kind of like making cars. You can’t double your car production on the same line. You have to get another line.
IBJ: It doesn’t sound like they employ many people.
Nelson: No, but it’s the way things are today. What it took 10 carpenters to build 10 years ago today takes four. I’ll give you a good example. Busch Stadium has a beautiful brick façade. Do you know how many bricklayers it took to build that façade? Zero. The carpenters and ironworkers put all that brick in there. They came in in complete panels. The bricklayers just mortared the joints later on. Same way with the concrete down there. It came in precast on a truck. We’re seeing more and more and more of that today.
IBJ: What are you doing to get more people interested in the trades?
Nelson: Several things. We have seven unions involved in a program we call Building Union Diversity. We’re bringing pre-apprentices into an accelerated 10-week program and letting them go to carpenter school for a week, laborer school for a week, electrician school for week, etc. We also have what we call the School to Work Program. We’re working with Affton, Hancock and Mehlville High Schools (in Missouri). The students do four hours a day in class and they come over to our apprenticeship training program and we do hands on training in the apprenticeship program. And we’re working with our community college system. Starting next year, all of our apprentices will graduate with an associate’s degree. They’ll all have an associate’s degree in construction. They’ll be so much better trained than they were 20 years ago.
IBJ: Are you concerned about the renewed push to make Missouri a Right-To-Work state?
Nelson: Yeah. We kept it off the ballot last year by just three votes. But the new Speaker of the House wants to make Missouri a Right to Work State and we don’t really know why. Everything we look at says that Right to Work does not increase anything. We really have gotten tremendous support on this from our membership in Illinois because they figure if Missouri goes, Illinois will be next. We’ve gotten some strong, strong support from the Illinois side of the river.
IBJ: Where do you see construction going in the metro area over the next 12 months or so?
Nelson: I think it’s going to be steady to rising. We’re being innovative; we’re being creative; we’re doing things; and, we’re investing money. We’re all working together and I really believe construction hours are going to increase anywhere from 3 to 5 percent going forward.