Tuesday’s opening of the AGC annual convention in Hawaii didn’t bring with it a wellspring of good news for the nation’s battered construction industry, but early conversations with attendees reveals some reasons for optimism—and the setting doesn’t hurt a bit.

Here, on the north end of Honolulu’s famed Waikiki Beach—separated from the rest of the city by the Ala Wai Canal, an island of tourists on a tourist island, where the umbrella-garnished mai tai was invented, where Elvis surfed and crooned through three beach movies and the weather is pleasantly stuck in Mediterranean spring—the Associated General Contractors of America launched its 93rd annual convention this week amid talk of better times ahead for the industry.

The consensus is that while things are not exactly good for America’s builders yet, the economy is improving, investors are loosening the purse strings and people are starting to find new work.

“It’s pretty flat out there,” one East Coast contractor said. “But at least we’re out of the valley and still in business, maybe even leaner and stronger for what we’ve been through.”

“Flat, but better, with a few less bidders for every project,” said a chapter exec from Texas.

Many contractors are back in hiring mode, looking for young talent that understands BIM, collaborative work environments and new approaches to projects.

First-day sessions established the theme of creating construction leaders who need to be technology savvy, open-minded and new age in their thinking about risk, financing and project outcomes. The focus is not on being risk averse, but on being good risk managers—agile, creative thinking in an economic environment that will likely never be the same as it was before 2007.

Speaker Ron Magnus with FMI Corp. told a Tuesday leadership forum: “There’s too much emphasis in the industry on strategic planning and not enough on strategic thinking. That takes clarity, agility, creativity and some good data on which to base your decisions.”

He said the industry is changing its approach to leadership and must continue to do so to survive in the “new norm,” post-recession economy.

There is much more to come, with a speech by Republican pundit Karl Rove here on day two. Stay tuned.