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Leveling the Playing Field

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“The future is yours to take.” These are the words that meet you on the ABC Wisconsin website. A clear message that, despite the challenging times we have all lived through, opportunities remain, and hope is abundant in the construction industry. Associated Builders and Contractors is the largest association of “Merit” companies in the United States. What this means in real terms is that the association supports, advocates, and educates for its members based solely on parity and balance in support of free market enterprise. For those at ABC Wisconsin, this is not about winning, or politics, or power, it is about national pride and fairness. Representing over 900 firms in Wisconsin, the chapter believes that “these beliefs translate into a healthy, competitive and professional climate, the results of which are proudly reflected in ABC member’s construction accomplishments.”

One key indicator of success, however, is longevity. ABC Wisconsin has been supporting its members since 1972 which means that this year has been a landmark one for the association. John Mielke, President, explains how this year acts as both a nod to its past successes and also the current positive state of the industry and its members. “The chapter was started in 1972. So, this past year was our 50th anniversary. We’ve grown steadily for all those years and currently we are at a high watermark in terms of membership numbers, retention numbers, apprenticeship participation, member services, size, and capability of our staff. It has really been an upward trajectory.”

For Mielke, it is important to point out that the current team leading the association have a blend of youth and experience. This historical link to its foundations is being carried into a bright future with energy. “When the association was first set up, many of our current leadership team were also there at the time. So, we’ve got some longtime staff and some dynamic and talented new hires.”

ABC Wisconsin members attending a town hall meeting with U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson

ABC Wisconsin is the second largest chapter in the country. This is not a claim to be taken lightly. In a market that can be difficult to break into and even tougher to remain in, the association has maintained a significant presence for over half a century and, impressively, boasts a 94% membership retention rate. For Mielke, the reason behind this is a simple yet vital one. “I think the constant is quality staff, people who deliver quality services. We are always looking to deliver more member value. We are very member centric and are driven by member needs. In another realm, you might call it a strong customer base, but I would call this a strong membership focus. The most common thing I hear is ‘I love working for the members and love the work they do.’ I mean, it’s the American success story in so many ways. You have people who started a small business, and it grew and became successful. It’s just a fun environment to work in and be part of and I think the people that are on the staff here, just really enjoy and appreciate that.”

The work being achieved by its members is at the core of everything being done by the association. It is clear from speaking to John Schulze, Director of Legal & Government Relations, that those at ABC Wisconsin support all business within the construction market. What makes this association truly different is that there is an appreciation for construction in general and the association only wants to see great work being achieved in a fair and equal manner.

“We run an extensive and very successful apprenticeship program.”

“Our focus has always been open competition. Free and fair competition from a legislative standpoint. And there have been times where people have tried to pass legislation that would advantage our members, but still lock up the market. That’s not something we’re interested in. Our message is consistent, we will support a project because we think it’s a good infrastructure investment. We want our members to be able to bid on this if they want you. Some will bid and get it and hopefully that’s great, but some won’t. Our thoughts on this are, just tell us what the rules are. Let’s make the rules fair. Let’s knock down barriers to competition in Wisconsin.”

One aspect of the work ABC Wisconsin has been doing centers around education. It is a vital aspect of construction, both from a safety standpoint and also as a way of supporting the industry. Encouraging young people to consider construction as a viable career path is of huge importance to an industry that has historically experienced ongoing worker shortages. Elizabeth Roddy, Recruitment and Training Director, explains how educating the industry begins long before a boot lands on the jobsite. “We see training as lifelong education. Much of the work being done is through speaking to high schoolers and young people. Encouraging them to get into the industry. We try to explain why people would want to consider careers in construction We run an extensive and very successful apprenticeship program. We have 35 years of experience in registered apprenticeships which is something that has certainly helped our members to build a workforce. We want people to choose this industry because it’s their passion.”

ABC Wisconsin apprenticeship program awards

This education extends, critically, to the area of safety. Part of attracting new workers to the industry is through analysis and training around the risks involved in working in construction. Historically, the industry has been known as a dangerous one. However, due to innovative new methods and products, construction is becoming safer, and more technology based. Don Moen, Human Resources and Safety Officer, explains how advancements across the industry and offering a more sustainable and safer environment for workers. “We offer extensive safety training to our members, and we talk to them about great new technology. We’re looking at a lot of robotics, and we are introducing the companies that build these products to our members. For example, there are products that reduce wear and tear on the shoulder areas and devices that assist with heavy lifting. There is technology that is picking the blocks up and laying them down; all the person has to do now is control that machine, which takes a lot of the old wear and tear type injuries away.”

While ABC Wisconsin successfully worked with the administration to ensure that its jobsites remained open throughout the pandemic, the industry slowed down considerably. As Mielke says, it would be fairer to suggest that things slowed, rather than stopped. “The interesting thing was that construction, at least in Wisconsin, and this wasn’t true across the country, was considered an essential job during the pandemic. That is something we worked with the administration to make sure of. Our people worked through the pandemic the whole time and you know, we certainly had to deal with increased safety protocols and maybe, you know, material shortages and other challenges, but they never really stopped, they kept moving, kept moving forward.” Despite this, understandable delays occurred, and the industry is currently experiencing somewhat of a backlog. This means however, for ABC Wisconsin members, that 2023 is shaping up to be the busiest year in recent memory. “Our members are booked well into next year. As I can say is that the members we are speaking to are busy, and they are busy well into 2023.”

With an association, it is natural to assume that the interests of the membership take preference above all else. While those at ABC Wisconsin certainly advocate fiercely for members, the overall goal isn’t necessarily success about all else. When I ask Mielke what he feels his members can offer a potential client, the answer is refreshing, fair and open. “You know, I don’t like to frame the question that way. What does an ABC member offer versus a union member… We hope all of our members offer quality, safe projects, dedicated workers and are interested in delivering for the customer. That’s not because they’re trying to be different or better than a union company. It’s because they’re trying to be the best company they can be.”

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