Photos by Tony Illia for ENR
Workers can play key role in modularization, Ironworkers' union President Walter Wise told labor- management gathering in Las Vegas earlier this month.
Owner executives urged union to change negative perceptions about organized labor.

Ironworkers must embrace more project collaboration by providing preconstruction, value engineering and constructability services while adapting skills toward increased modularization, Fluor Senior Vice President Robert Prieto told union members, contractors and owners at a Las Vegas labor-management meeting.

“We need to understand that the vast majority of projects have marginal economics today,” he told attendees.

Construction has a 55% to 60% efficiency rating, which hasn’t improved in 30 years, noted Doug Hyde, vice president of Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., speaking to the nearly 1,000 attendees at the 2014 North American Ironworkers-IMPACT Labor Management Conference on Feb. 11.

Ironworkers aren’t losing jobs because many projects are viable only through the improved cost margins made possible by modularization or installing pre-produced building units as large-volume components.

“Modularization is a natural progression,” said Walter Wise, president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Ironworkers, who attributes modularization's growth to “increased crane capacity” and “adverse conditions.”

Jobs To Fill

The need for ironworkers is expected to grow 22% between 2012 to 2022, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Also, industry experts anticipate that 40% of current craft members will retire over the next few years.

“We are not recruiting young people to come into our business, and we are dying,” said Mark Selvaggio, president of Selvaggio Steel Inc., Springfield, Ill.

“This is a big problem that can’t be understated,” said Randy Stefanizyn, corporate labor-relations manager for Alberta-based Syncrude Canada Ltd., suggesting it will “take a generation to solve.”

A workforce “front-loaded with apprentices causes some concern,” Stefanizyn added.

Nearly two-thirds of contractors expect that filling craft-worker positions will be tougher in 2014, according to an Associated General Contractors of America member survey.

Ironworkers are recruiting returning veterans and young farmers to fill the workforce gap by the most direct method: pay rates. The median annual wage for structural ironworkers was $46,140 in May 2012, the BLS reports.

“The youth of North America are smart,” Wise said. “A youngster going to college will leave [that institution with] nearly a quarter of a million dollars in debt, whereas that same youngster can graduate from an ironworker apprenticeship program with tremendous skills and about a quarter of a million dollars in their pocket.”

The 118-year-old, 120,000-member ironworkers' union has 150 North America apprenticeship training sites and a curriculum co-developed with industry consultant FMI Corp.

Recruitment, however, is still a challenge.

"[Ironworkers] are trying to outrun a reputation that union projects are harder to manage, require more oversight and involve troublemakers," said conference speaker Kimberly D. Flowers, vice president of technical services for Southern Cos., Atlanta. “You may not want your wagon attached to the other trades, but it is.”

Ironworkers say their jobsite performance “works to overcome the myths and negative stereotypes,” said Wise, claiming they “lead the industry in safety and productivity.”

But “there is a little too much tolerance in protecting your members,” noted Darrell Fernandez, general manager of Parsons Constructors. “If these guys are staying on jobs, it’s impacting the job and giving you an image you don’t want.”

Meanwhile, undercapitalized craft-worker opportunities still exist for project scheduling, construction sequencing, fabrication and design. “The real scheduling happens in the field with three-week look-aheads,” said URS Corp. Vice President Tim Murchison.

Indeed, that scheduling period is about the time when craft workers need to “come in and look at the plans,” said Fernandez.