Perhaps it’s not surprising that this Q&A steers into structural innovation for the construction industry. Rather than focusing solely on technology, Todd Mustard, Vice President at one of the country’s largest national associations for union contractors, highlights how owners and builders can explore alternative methods of project delivery that emphasizes the value of long-term partnerships and creative approaches to overcoming industry challenges.
In this Q&A, we discuss the history of the National Erectors Association, which eventually becomes TAUC, and its impact on the industry through the creation of one of the first national Project Labor Agreements, the importance of industry collaboration, and the challenges faced by the construction industry, such as fragmentation and commoditization.
I always like to start out by asking about you and how you made it into construction?
I graduated from the University of Oklahoma with an undergraduate degree in International Studies, so Washington, D.C. seemed like a logical location to begin my career. Like many things in life, that didn’t quite go as planned, and my first job was with America Online. It turned out to be a great initial job, working around a ton of young people with a lot of energy and enthusiasm especially as it related to online advertising.
After several years, I left the company, and landed with NEA — The Association of Union Constructors. My first job there was as Manager of Communications, trying to enhance their online presence and build out their quarterly printed newsletter.
It was a very small organization of around 12 people. The people had all been there for a long time in part because they had great benefits, but also because they had a mission that felt good and honorable.
My job and titles have changed a lot over the past twenty years as I got more involved, first with government affairs activities, and then, more recently, with all things construction innovation and technology.
I didn’t know anything about construction before I took the job. I didn’t know anything about unions before I took the job, and I’ve learned a lot about both in the last two decades, as you can imagine.
Before we get into how NEA became TAUC, let’s get something out of the way first— how do you pronounce TAUC?
It’s pronounced “talk.” We like to say we talk the talk.
The year was 1969 when the National Erectors Association was created and it was purely a steel erector association.
Then in 1971, the members of the NEA and its executive director saw an opportunity in the steel mills outside of Pittsburgh to create a Project Labor Agreement that would allow union contractors to use building trade unions to do quick short turnaround work.
The first trade they partnered with was the Iron Workers because they had a good relationship with them already. Then from 1971 to 1986, they brought on 14 different international unions that all then became signatory to what’s now called the National Maintenance Agreements, which is a national PLA.
The NEA morphed, in part because of the success of that PLA, into a multi-craft GC/CM specialty contractor association. They went through a little bit of a machination in the late ’90s when they changed their name to NEA — “dash” — The Association of Union Constructors, because they had a hard time totally letting go of the past and they wanted to tip the hat to the steel erectors who had been loyal.
Then finally in 2006, they lopped off the NEA and just went with The Association of Union Constructors, or TAUC.
Well, that’s innovative! We talk a lot about a labor crunch in the industry and this association of steel erectors was helping projects solve their labor supply issues through networks of worker sourcing. Was NEA the creator or impetus for national PLAs then?
That’s actually a great question and point. I would guess that it is one of the first national PLAs to be heavily utilized. It’s definitely, to my knowledge, one of the most used in the industry based on work hours.
Over the course of the 50-plus years it’s been in existence, around 2.5 billion hours have been worked under that PLA — although I think that’s a low estimate because of underreporting.
Talk about having an impact on the industry.
No doubt. For sure, it was innovative, to be honest. It created efficiencies and cost benefits to a whole sub-sector within the industrial community. First it was taken advantage by the steel manufacturers, but then morphed over time.
After the Clean Air Act was passed, the utility sector took advantage of this PLA as they were putting scrubbers on coal-fire power plant stacks. Now, it’s actually being really heavily utilized by the automotive industry.
Interesting. So the automotive industry took a page out of NEA’s book? Or are there similar unions across construction and the automotive industry that collaborate?
I think the United Steelworkers were being asked to do things that were probably a better fit for the building trade unions, and I think maybe the same was true for the automotive industry where the UAW, who manufacture cars, were being asked to do things that was probably a better fit for the building trades.
It’s quick high-skill turnaround work. Imagine anytime an automotive company wants to put a new line in to create some new vehicle. A lot of times it is literally a complete gut job of the existing facility and then retooling in a way that makes sense for the new vehicle.
We deal with construction divisions within all of those owner/client organizations. Any owner client that has existing infrastructure that they just want to retool or rework or maintain, the National Maintenance Agreement comes in pretty handy.
I see a lot of TAUC’s value then around labor coordination and making sure that the right hands are on the right tools at the right time. I imagine there’s a lot of areas where technology can help improve that value proposition?
That has a lot to do with it. TAUC is unique in that we represent some 1,750 or more construction firms that all utilize union building trades labor for their workforce needs, and we have incredible relationships with fourteen different International Unions and their affiliates.
Where we fit in as it relates to tech and innovation is that we are strategically attempting to help identify, educate, test, and deploy these new processes, hardware and software, not only to our member contractors, but also to the unions we have close relationships with, as well as the owner/clients that our contractors serve.
TAUC’s annual Industrial Grade Innovation (IGI) Conference and Expo is where we bring everyone together to not only discuss the latest and greatest innovations that are impacting the construction market, but also give our attendees an opportunity to kick the tires on new offerings from the manufacturers and service providers who participate.
So from the innovation and technology side, one thing we’ve been trying to do is a high tides raises all boats sort of thing where a peer group mentality and openness leads to transparency across members.
Are you able to give an example or a success story of late?
For example, Walbridge is in my innovation and tech committee and they were using Kwant.ai to help them track Covid exposure among craft on various different jobs.
John Jurewicz with Walbridge, who’s a member of our committee, came to not only talk about it in the committee, but then did a breakout session at one of our events where he dove deep on how it works, what they did, some of the issues they faced, and discussed the different types of wearable tech that they tested.
Another is jobsite connectivity which was my committee’s focus last year. We connected with a lot of larger carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Comcast Xfinity.
We ultimately ended up finding a solution that worked in the television industry where they created their own portable infrastructure for a stadium to provide high speed connectivity and internet. That’s now being rolled out by a distributor in St. Louis.
It’s a great potential solution for predominantly greenfield and some brownfield sites outside of large metro areas — imagine very rural projects, where the current connectivity infrastructure doesn’t work that great.
So who’s on your team and what are the roles and responsibilities? How are you guys structured?
Our team consists of thirteen of my colleagues on the TAUC and NMAPC team that work tirelessly to create true ROI for our members. They’re subject matter experts on environmental health and safety, industrial relations, innovation and technology, government affairs and marketing and communications.
Our team also consists of the volunteers who serve on many of our committees. I am lucky enough to serve as the staff liaison to both our government affairs committee and innovation & technology committee. Each of our committees has somewhere between 20 and up to 60 volunteer member participants.
Their unique backgrounds and experiences provide us with a wealth of knowledge to tap into, or a sounding board to bounce new ideas off of.
For example, we’ve got an an Environmental Health and Safety director out of Pittsburgh. The NMAPC side does its own Zero Injury Safety Awards gala that we host each year in Washington, D.C. That’s a really big deal for us. It’s basically the biggest event on the NMAPC side.
It’s a really cool opportunity for us to recognize safety excellence — not only from the contractor’s perspective but also from the trades that they employ and the owner client.
In fact, I think safety could be a prototype for how some of the adoption of innovation tech could also work.
We’ve talked about that a bit. I think that if anyone’s figured out construction culture, it’s the safety professionals.
Exactly. It is relationships, and it’s also the fact that we’ve realized that it’s worth dedicating onsite personnel to safety initiatives.
It’s like if we can dedicate personnel to the adoption of innovation tech on literally a site-by-site basis, I think that would have go a long way towards encouraging and helping ensure that adoption is successful.
What are some of the other challenges you’re seeing with the changing construction industry?
There are several challenges facing the construction industry. The fragmented nature of our ecosystem, for one.
The slim profit margins in this business prevent money, time and energy from going towards research and development. A historic practice of “it’s not broke don’t fix it” — rather than continual improvement, trying new things and failing fast.
The culture of commoditization where an owner/client is selecting a construction manager or general contractor based on price rather than spending more to invest in a longstanding and fruitful relationship.
I can only imagine the long-term benefits to the owner/clients and the industry at large if Construction as a Service were the business model of the future. We could learn some things from the software industry’s Subscription as a Service model.
You use the term “Construction as a Service.” Do you mind talking a bit more about the idea there?
This is something I’ve talked quite a bit about. Construction can be so many different things to so many different people.
It would benefit the industry if owner/clients, instead of doing a multi-bid process for every single job that they do, instead maybe selected “partners” and chose to use them for the next 5 to 10 years. This would incentivize them to invest in the construction company because it’s not just this one job that they’re working on for them.
They might pay that partner more than they would somebody else, but that’s because they want that partner to invest in their own research and development to improve project delivery.
What currently incentivizes an owner client to offer improvement opportunities for a contractor that they hire for one job based on low bid? Nothing.
This Construction as a Service concept would ultimately be incredibly valuable and have ROI for the owner/client community, and it would also benefit the whole ecosystem.
Nate Fuller is Managing Director of Placer Solutions, advising leadership teams to transform their organizations in ways that improve performance and agility at the field level.
He provides construction companies with a Field Assessment that delivers transformative information about their field operations and is proven to accelerate innovation & technology adoption for Top ENR contractors.
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