SMACNA event focuses on working out workforce shortages

There was plenty of heavy metal on hand at BuiltWorlds’ Chicago headquarters on the evening of Sept. 13, with attendees of the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning National Association (SMACNA) Greater Chicago Industry Night & Associate Member Expo enjoying a festive evening of networking and catching up, all while learning about new systems and technologies. Those on hand for the event had ample opportunity to visit with exhibitors showcasing a range of product and services that included metal product, power tools, HVAC components and more.

However, event presenter Aaron Salow, founder and CEO of Nashville-based XOEye Technologies, a supplier of eyewear that visually links construction site installations with remote personnel for purposes of real-time troubleshooting, alerted SMACNA members to a problem afflicting all construction-related trades: Workforce shortages.

L to R: Tony Adolfs (EVP, SMACNA Greater Chicago), Joe Passanante (VP, SMACNA Greater Chicago), Matt Abeles (Co-Founder, BuiltWorlds), Aaron Salow (CEO, XOEye)

At issue is a sea change in the make up of today’s workforce, said Salow, noting that Baby Boomers are retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day. Problem is “blue collar” industries, construction included, are experiencing difficulty replenishing their ranks. “Today’s parents are encouraging their children to receive a four-year college degree rather than attend a technical school,” Salow said, noting the thinking is that college graduates will embark on a more satisfying and successful career path.

“That is the big lie,” said Salow. The irony, he elaborated, “is that college graduates often find themselves $125,000 in debt, with a job that pays $28,000 per year. By comparison, someone who attends a technical school can earn $85,000 per year. Yes, they may wind up with careers that get their hands dirty, but it’s okay to get your hands dirty.”

Salow related portions of his presentation in personal terms. His grandparents were farmers, his father the owner of a manufacturing firm for which he worked while growing up. “Working with your hands was a very cool thing,” he recalled.

Since then circumstances have changed, with Salow citing statistics indicating 5.3 million skilled jobs currently unfilled in the U.S. That number is expected to skyrocket to 31 million in just a few short years, he added. Meantime, the number of active apprentices plunged from 488,927 to 287,750 between 2003 and 2013, Salow said, citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. 

Attendees enjoyed the opportunity to network at the event.

The good news, said Salow, is that new, high-tech technologies hold the potential to draw young workers to fields such as construction. Among new systems on hand is XOEye Technologies “smart glasses,” which rely on cloud-based platform that allows construction technicians and trades in the field to receive assistance via audio and video from seasoned professionals in the home office. “It provides an opportunity for older personnel who may no longer be in condition to work in the field to pass on their knowledge and experience to younger workers,” Salow said. Enterprises also can use resulting video for instructional purposes in classrooms.

“It’s my belief that technology can bridge the generational gap,” Salow concluded. “It’s okay to be blue collar. In fact, it’s something to be proud of because blue collar built America.”

Salow’s presentation resonated with many event attendees. “Aaron gave an outstanding presentation about an issue that really impacts the construction industry,” said Joe Passannante, Vice President of Operations at Cleats Manufacturing and Vice President of SMACNA Greater Chicago. “His approach to addressing the generational gap and workforce shortage is certainly is interesting and promising.”

To close the night, SMACNA members spent time visiting with exhibitors on hand for the evening, including:

Albany Steel & Brass Corp.

Air Products Equipment Co. This enterprise supplies HVAC components ranging from air measuring and control and air pollution control to dampers, ductwork and dust collection systems.

Albany Steel & Brass Corp. This distributor of fasteners, industrial supplies and mill provides components that include power tools, caulking and sealants, safety equipment, sheet metal fittings, blades and more from dozens of prominent industry suppliers.

Ductmate Industries Inc. – One of the largest HVAC system components manufacturers in the world, and the largest in the U.S., Ductmate places  emphasis on engineering and R&D to produce industry-leading product. 

Ductmate Industries

Majestic Steel USA – Among Majestic’s offerings are galvanized steels, gavanealed steels, galvalume steel, aluminized steel, cold-rolled steel, stainless steel, prepainted Steel and phosphatized/bonderized steel.

Milwaukee Tool – Milwaukee supplies power tools, hand tools, and a variety of other instruments, in addition to a product line that complies with OSHA Ruling 1926.1153, a regulation to drastically reduce worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

Porter Pipe & Supply Co.  – This high-performance wholesaler and service provides adhesives, sealants, chemicals, cleaners, fittings, HVACR, piping and tubing, piping specialty, plumbing, valves and more. BuiltWorlds recently featured Porter Pipe in an episode of Yard & Shop, featured below.

Vent Products Co., Inc., Chicago – Vent has supplied custom dampers and louvers for more than 50 years, including combination dampers/louvers, fire dampers, fabricated metal louvers, backdraft dampers and shutters and more.

Interested in labor and workforce topics? Learn more about the BW Future Workforce Conference.

All proceeds from the event — $2,450 — were donated to Midwest Shelter for Homeless Vets, whose mission is to provide veteran and their families with housing and supportive services that lead to self-sufficiency.

“It’s always nice to get members of SMACNA Greater Chicago out for a networking event that includes our associate members,” Passannante said. “Overall, I thought the event was a success and am excited for upcoming SMACNA and YES (Young Executives of SMACNA) events in the future.

For more SMACNA events, visit their event calendar.