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ABC and Merit Canada Join Forces to Tackle Common Problems and Share Best Practices

The predicted shortage of skilled craft professionals is not unique to the United States. In addition to the roughly two million workers needed stateside by 2017, at least 300,000 more will be needed in Canada during the next decade.

Can something be done to help solve the workforce crisis on both fronts? That’s part of the mission of the CAN-AM Merit Alliance, formally established in February 2014 with the signing of a joint resolution by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and Merit Canada. In March, the groups bolstered the alliance with the addition of two ambassadors: Tim Walton, director of external affairs and public policy for Maine-based Cianbro, and Ron Yoneda, corporate human resources manager for Alberta-based SITE.

Both associations are rooted in the merit shop philosophy and share a passion for supporting free enterprise. Ultimately, the alliance formalizes an already strong relationship, with goals to:
  • help contractors provide rewarding long-term careers for their employees;
  • encourage and promote the safety and welfare of all employees;
  • support government policies that facilitate the awarding of contracts without regard to protectionism; 
  • increase international business opportunities for firms and reduce barriers to the employment of workers outside their native countries; 
  • provide services to the American and Canadian construction industries; and 
  • facilitate more effective service delivery to both associations’ members.
“Working together on this initiative provides for the free flow of information and sharing of resources that are beneficial to both organizations’ members,” says ABC President and CEO Mike Bellaman. “The hope is that this alliance can become somewhat of a template for similar relationships with likeminded organizations in other countries across the globe.”

2013 ABC National Chairman Eric Regelin was essential to the genesis of the alliance. “There are people around the world who believe the same things that we believe: that everyone should have an opportunity to participate and thrive in the construction industry without artificial barriers being placed in their way. These people may not know the term ‘merit shop’ yet, but I think it’s in the best interest of ABC to reach out and form alliances for mutual benefit.

“I could think of no better place to start than with our Canadian friends,” Regelin says.

Merit Canada was established in 2007 when eight provincial associations came together to form a united voice for the open shop construction industry. The organization has about 3,800 member contractors (employing roughly 60,000 people) that build more than 70 percent of the industrial, commercial, institutional and residential construction projects across Canada. As of 2011, the CanadiTerrance Oakeyan construction sector employed 1.26 million people, with 900,000 working in the open shop sector—representing almost 8.6 percent of the nation’s total labor force.

“We’ve always thought about doing something like this because we’re likeminded in our philosophy and face a lot of the same challenges,” says Merit Canada President Terrance Oakey. “When we brought the idea to our membership and ABC did the same, we got a good response.”

“It made sense to formalize these strong connections and put it into a framework that can flourish,” adds Stephen Kushner, president of Merit Alberta—the largest provincial association within Merit Canada (with about 1,400 contractors employing 40,000 to 50,000 people). “We function on a similar model of tools, technology and materials. There is a border, but there isn’t a border.”

Shared Challenges and Opportunities

When the recession took hold in 2008, Canada wasn’t as deeply hurt as the United States. According to Kushner, the Canadian economy took a little dip in 2009, but was largely back to normal in 2010. Activity in the oil sands market is particularly strong, with pipeline and other projects in the $10 billion to $12 billion range drawing workers and their families to Alberta—causing increased demand for hospitals, schools and housing developments.

“We’ve been dealing with labor shortages this whole time; manpower is very tight,” Kushner says. “Some of our contractors have to turn down work because they don’t have the workers to perform the projects. We’re focusing heavily on trying to bring young people into the industry, as well as focusing on leadership development and succession planning.”

It’s a familiar predicament for American construction businesses. As such, cross-border mobility is a key area oStephen Kushnerf concentration for the CAN-AM Merit Alliance.

“There are several opportunities for member companies to provide services across the border that have been hampered by regulations currently in place,” Bellaman says. “By working together through the alliance, we can present a united front and consistent message when speaking with government leaders on both sides of the border.”

For example, industrial shutdowns in the Gulf Coast tend to take place from September to April. In Canada, they typically occur from May to September. That means expert workers are sitting idle rather than potentially working 10 months a year in both countries.

“Immigration is a major issue,” Oakey confirms. “We’re looking at what the irritants are for members trying to bring workers to and from Canada and the United States.”

For SITE, which provides environmental, infrastructure and access services for oil, gas and resource development companies, skilled trade jobs are the most difficult for Yoneda to fill, especially pipefitters and welders. “There are good people out there; we just don’t have enough of them,” he says. “Apprenticeship program numbers aren’t where they need to be to sustain the amount of construction going on in the province.”

But currently, cross-border employment is too frustrating to be effective. “There’s a lot of government red tape to qualify someone to go back and forth,” Yoneda says. “To import American workers, I have to advertise the position and then wait up to six months to get a positive approval. By that time, the project is over. It’s hard to pinpoint exact timing and the number of employees needed for a construction project. If we could streamline that process of getting people across the border, I could provide a lot of jobs in the offseason.”

Another goal of the alliance is to offer members of both associations access to each other’s education and safety training programs. “This could be the start to opening the dialogue with governing bodies to eventually recognize the safety and training credentials of people doing cross-border work,” Bellaman says.

Other issues on the alliance’s radar include exchanging information on legislative initiatives related to open tendering and project labor agreements, job targeting, and fair labor laws and policies. The group also hopes to expand affinity programs and services to both organizations’ memberships. Additionally, preliminary discussions are under way regarding the possibility of organizing international peer groups and an international conference for open shop advocates around the world.

“We face common issues, especially on the training and advocacy side,” Oakey says. “When victories are had or tactics are discovered, it’s important that we share them so we can learn from the work that all of us do.”

Joanna Masterson is editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email masterson@abc.org, visit www.constructionexec.com or follow @ConstructionMag.

Meet the Ambassadors

Tim WaltonTim Walton
Director of External Affairs and Public Policy
Pittsfield, Maine

How he got involved in the construction industry: I spent time early in my career managing a variety of campaigns and then worked in Congress. On one campaign visit with the Maine Chapter, I told then-Rep. Jim Longley that if a job ever opened at Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), I would apply because the organization shares my values 100 percent. About five years later, the Maine chapter president position became available and I was hired. I did that until January 2005 when Cianbro, which was heavily involved with ABC, hired me to be external affairs director—covering government affairs, public affairs, charitable giving, etc.

What Cianbro specializes in: Cianbro self-performs civil, structural, mechanical, electrical, instrumentation, fabrication and coating work in the power generation and energy, modular manufacturing, refining and petrochemical, industrial, marine, fuel transmission and distribution, commercial and institutional markets through its workforce of more than 4,000 employees. The company offers construction services from the conceptual stages of design through implementation, to start-up, commissioning and turn-key operations.

His role in the alliance: Too often we put self-constraints on when it comes to the economy. We only think about the national economy, yet we know there are likeminded contractors and construction groups around the world. I appreciate 2013 ABC National Chairman Eric Regelin’s foresight to create the alliance and the ABC Executive Committee’s support for it. Now, my job as ambassador is to promote the alliance’s programs, events and public policy initiatives, and to consider any services that can be offered to our respective memberships.

Why he was chosen to be ABC’s ambassador: As a former ABC Executive Committee member, Tim understands the long-term goals of the association and the needs of the industry. This, coupled with the fact that he is well-respected, made him a great candidate to help develop a relationship between ABC and Merit Canada. – Mike Bellaman, President and CEO, ABC National

Ron YonedaRon Yoneda
Corporate Human Resources Manager
Sherwood Park, Alberta

How he got involved in the construction industry: I’ve run several businesses and worked as a construction labor provider supplying temporary workers to construction companies. I then got into the recruitment business, specializing in construction and engineering. The construction industry was starting to take off in Alberta, so it was a good opportunity to get involved. In 2010, when SITE was founded, I was brought on as a consultant to help with recruitment efforts. It rolled into a full-time HR position because, as a start-up company, we had to develop job descriptions and formal policies and procedures.

What SITE specializes in: The company initially stemmed from the merger of two heavy civil firms with about 200 employees. It has been acquiring additional firms for the last four years, with the most recent acquisition located in North Dakota. Today, the firm employs 1,200 to 1,500 people depending on the season. SITE positions itself as a remote access company specializing in oil services: clearing, seismic work, surveying, pipeline, mechanical and earthwork (i.e., everything prior to actual plant construction).

His big-picture view of the alliance: Longer term, we’re looking at ways to bring people in from Europe, South America and Asia so we can turn this into something we can all be really proud of and help represent the open shop construction industry. There’s a lot we can learn from international groups. From a Canadian perspective, a lot of international companies are getting involved in the oil sands. If we can start to share and develop ideas and work toward common goals, it will be good for the industry as a whole.

Why he was chosen to be Merit Canada’s ambassador:
Ron’s company is active in the United States and Canada; it’s important to have someone with an appreciation for the challenges of working in both countries. He also has a strong HR background, which encompasses some of the alliance’s top concerns. – Stephen Kushner, President, Merit Alberta

Alliance Welcomes Input
The CAN-AM Merit Alliance is interested in meaningful dialogue with members of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and Merit Canada who can offer fresh perspectives on market trends and performing work in both the United States and Canada, as well as offer suggestions on where the alliance can be replicated in other countries.

“Companies that can provide experiences as to how current regulations have hindered their ability to win work or do work across the border are especially helpful,” says ABC President and CEO Mike Bellaman. “Their insight will allow the alliance to write the narrative and better explain the issues with the current system.”

Ultimately, all members of ABC and Merit Canada are part of the alliance through the involvement of their associations.

“It’s important to keep talking and sharing ideas and to get the word out that this alliance exists,” says Ron Yoneda, corporate human resources manager for Alberta-based SITE and Canadian ambassador to the CAN-AM Merit Alliance. “If enough people know about it, we can make a difference.” 

To learn more or get involved, email ABC Chapter Development Manager Stephen Lewis at slewis@abc.org.

- Joanna Masterson

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