Cautiously optimistic as industry copes with pandemic
When the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic began in March, Boston and other municipalities abruptly closed virtually all construction sites, along with a series of other preventative measures. Consequently, the unemployment rate for Local 12 members shot up to about 80%, and GBPCA contractors saw their revenues drop sharply.
As industry leaders gathered to discuss safety protocols in advance of restarting jobs in May, there was much angst about the impact on productivity and the general viability of projects. So, many months later, how are things going?
“I’m happy to report that we have over 95% employment among our members,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, adding that the rate is typical for this time of year. In other words, employment has more or less returned to pre-pandemic levels. “I’m pleasantly surprised,” Fandel adds. “After the depths of the initial shutdown, I wouldn’t have thought we would be where we are now.”
Contractors are also indicating that nearly all jobs have resumed, and that the industry in general has rebounded well. That’s not to say, however, that everything is exactly normal. COVID 19 has fundamentally changed many things and continues to present challenges.
Weathering a difficult storm
When projects such as Boynton Yards in Somerville and 325 Main Street in Cambridge halted in March, GBPCA contractor J.C. Higgins reduced the field work force of its plumbing division by about 80%.
“Those of us in the office went to a four-day work week to help reduce payroll,” says John Shaughnessy, VP of the contractor’s plumbing division and a 36-year veteran at the company. Among other mitigation strategies, some employees took early retirement. Through it all, J.C. Higgins was able to retain 90% of its office staff.
“We lost the opportunity to generate much revenue during the three-month shutdown of the first coronavirus wave,” Shaughnessy says. “We are tightening everything where we can. We have been able to weather the shutdowns, but it has not been easy.”
On the bright side, things have gone well since work resumed in May under “new normal” conditions. Company officials were trying to anticipate what might happen when practices such as social distancing and tool washing were introduced at construction sites.
“Would it cost us 20% of a day’s productivity? More? We just didn’t know,” says Shaughnessy. As it turns out, J.C. Higgins has seen that the impact has not been as severe as anticipated.
Local 12’s Fandel concurs. Workers quickly adopted safety precautions such as wearing facemasks and other PPE. And technology such as phone apps and QR codes were rapidly deployed to help streamline health screenings. “It’s become standardized,” Fandel says. “We incorporated new processes, made them part of our routine, and adapted.”
In-person instruction returns to training center
The pandemic has interrupted routines at Local 12’s training center. The school quickly pivoted to remote learning after it went into lockdown mode in the spring. Apprentices and instructors connected online via electronic classes. When the fall session began in the new academic year, however, the training center reopened, and the day school program reverted back to in-person classes, albeit with a number of adaptations.
Perhaps the most significant change has been the reduction of class sizes. To accommodate social distancing, most classes have about ten apprentices, or about one-third less students. Because the class sizes are smaller, the training center will be expanding its schedule and presenting more classes.
All work areas are regularly sanitized, and the classrooms themselves are disinfected daily. The center installed many hand sanitizer stations, increased the airflow of its HVAC system to improve ventilation, and closed its break room. Apprentices and instructors are required to wear masks at all times. If team projects require participants to be closer than six feet, they wear clear face shields in addition to masks.
The modifications are not insignificant, and the conditions are not ideal, according to Rick Carter, the training center’s director. For example, it can be difficult for instructors and students to understand each other when they talk with masks on. But he says that the overwhelming consensus is that in-person classes are considerably better than the alternative, adding that there is no substitute when you’re trying to teach somebody a trade.
“Most of our apprentices are visual, hands-on, tactile learners,” Carter notes. “You can’t do that virtually.”
To illustrate the point, he says that he presented the math for a project during a class, and one of the apprentices was having trouble understanding it conceptually. When they built the project together in the shop, however, it all came together. “She did a great job with it and immediately got it. We couldn’t have done that online,” Carter says.
Fandel says that he is hopeful that the center will be able to continue to offer in-person classes, but notes that much is dependent on conditions outside of the school’s control such as rising infection rates in the community.
With a wobbly general economy, the trustees that oversee the training center decided to reduce the size of the incoming class by about half to 30 apprentices. Should conditions warrant it, Fandel notes that the school could open its enrollment later.
Looking to the future
How might conditions evolve in the construction industry? In the near future, Shaughnessy and Fandel believe that the unprecedented boom times that have prevailed over the past few years will mostly continue. Not only have nearly all existing jobs resumed, but owners and developers of many major new projects that had been in the pipeline have indicated that they will be moving forward with their plans. These include the massive Suffolk Downs development and Mass General, which has a $1-billion, 1-million-square-foot expansion on tap.
Some sectors, however, are shaky. Shaughnessy says that the city’s previously red-hot condo market might be taking a bit of a hit in the near term, noting that a residential project in the Seaport switched to lab space (for which there is continued huge demand). And some spec jobs that developers were building without tenants in place have been put on hold. The dicey economy has dealt a blow to retail and restaurant projects as well.
But Fandel points to the many engines that undergird the Boston area’s resilient economy and support the construction industry, including its universities, hospitals, research and development, and biotech. “It’s a testament to the region,” he says.
Post-pandemic, Shaughnessy remains upbeat. “In a year or two, I expect that there will be many new projects that we will be bidding.” He adds that, in his opinion, office space will remain an important part of new construction. “Offices will not become obsolete,” Shaughnessy says. “I don’t think people will work from home forever. I believe we are very social and want to join together in workspaces.”
Regardless of what the future holds, Jeremy Ryan, executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association, says that contractors are up to the task. “The pandemic has presented a new type of challenge. There is still so much uncertainty as to how everything will shake out, but our contractors will remain nimble and continue to evolve.”
Shaughnessy says that he’s “cautiously optimistic. J.C. Higgins and the industry will persevere.”