Even the early sessions of AGC of America’s 92nd Annual Convention, which got under way Monday in Las Vegas, demonstrate that this convention is less conventional than in years past—a different approach for a difficult time in the industry. The thrust this year, according to one AGC official, is not to point out the obvious problems the industry faces but to offer solutions and alternatives to attendees, to help them apply new approaches to now-familiar problems.

That message was obvious from the opening plenary session on Monday morning, an appeal by a social media expert for the often technologically reluctant construction industry not just to consider a bigger acceptance of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but to embrace them as productivity tools rather than social toys.

David Nour, a social networking strategist from Atlanta’s Strategic Relationship Planning, asked contractors at the session: “Will you embrace these social media platforms to build your relationships with customers or just sit and watch as it happens all around you?”

He said that the “worst thing you can do on social media is to sell; the best thing is to listen”—to use them to influence a potential buyer’s perspective on a project or service—“inform, don’t push; selling just turns people off.”

Many in the room admitted that they seldom use social media for clients to talk back to them. But Nour suggested that contractors and designers adopt a more “holistic view” of their customers—“share the good, bad and the ugly of your company and your projects with them—especially the ugly, so you can show them how you solve problems, and let them become your ‘evangelists’ for honesty and transparency in the marketplace.

“Listen, engage, influence,” he said. “That’s when you have created strategic relationships that allow your customers to understand who you are, not just what you do.”

Another morning session featured two maverick presidents of national unions, Douglas McCarron, general president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners; and Vincent Giblin, general president of the International Union of Operating Engineers; who discussed the validity of organized labor in an increasingly hostile political and commercial environment. Both men led their unions’ withdrawal from the AFL-CIO’s Building & Construction Trades Department and formed the independent National Construction Alliance.

“We (unions) are experiencing some of the most challenging times on both sides of the political aisle.” Giblin said. “We must work together to find a permanent solution to transportation funding by forming new partnerships, public and private.”

Referring to the changes in the political landscape from November’s election, he said that he hoped “we learned our lessons there. Even our own rank-and-file were turned off. We fell asleep at the switch and took a beating, and we know it can’t be business as usual now.”

McCarron acknowledged “tough times” for union labor but said that companies need to realize becoming more competitive and increasing profits means they need to be more productive, and union labor helps them achieve that. “Improved productivity is the low-hanging fruit of profits. Even with a 10% improvement, profits will soar,” he said.

Both leaders agreed that traditional approaches to union labor must change in order for people to see it as a viable choice in a down economy where non-union firms may be able to offer lower-priced services.

The AGC convention runs through Friday in conjunction with CONEXPO, being held at the Las Vegas Convention Center this week.

Much more to come. Stay tuned.