BusinessWest Anniversary

40 Years of Construction

Workforce Challenges Have Emerged over Time

When you’ve been building things for as long as Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (DOC) has, well … sometimes you enjoy the sequel.

Take, for example, the Montgomery-Russell bridge on I-90 over the Westfield River. DOC is currently renovating it, a $46.9 million project that includes deck rehabilitation, lighting and drainage improvements, and a major steel component replacement.

It’s a return of sorts for Holyoke-based DOC, which built that bridge nearly 70 years ago.

“When you have situations like that, it’s kind of cool,” said Joubin Hassanein, the company’s president. “You look back at photos of the people that were working on that original bridge, and to know that they’re kind of connected to you in some way is pretty awesome.”

With a 145-year history of major projects, from Springfield’s Memorial Bridge to Rowe’s Wharf in Boston and that city’s Leverett Circle Connector Bridge, the leaders at O’Connell’s can take a long view of what has changed in the construction industry, but Hassanein believes some of the bigger changes are still to come.

“Construction in general has been an industry that hasn’t seen a lot of change over the course of a long time — except for the period that we live in now,” he told BusinessWest, especially in the realm of technology. “We’re seeing a rapid adoption of technology into construction. We’re probably in the early stages of a very fast-changing scene within the construction industry. And I think it’s important for companies to be nimble enough to move with that change, and we’re heavily invested in that.”

DOC is equally invested in wastewater and drinking-water facilities, which now account for about 40% of its work, with the other 60% falling mostly into the education sector, but also healthcare, hospitality, senior living, and other areas. With two offices in Massachusetts and one each in Connecticut, New York, and Florida, it’s also looking to expand geographically.

David Fontaine Jr., CEO of Fontaine Bros., has also had a hand in plenty of large-scale public work, as well as helping to shape the landscape of downtown Springfield, from the MassMutual Center project 20 years ago to the recent conversion of the former Court Square Hotel into market-rate apartments.

“It’s great to see the momentum that’s generating for the area,” he said, adding that high schools and colleges have been another mainstay, with work at Deerfield Academy, Wilbraham Monson Academy, and a host of other schools, as well as healthcare projects for clients like Baystate Health and Mercy Medical Center. “We intentionally keep a mix of work in public and private sectors. The public sector is a little less sensitive to the ups and downs of interest rates.

“Almost 70% of our work is with repeat clients, so that’s important,” Fontaine added. “When there are fewer projects out there and they’re more difficult to get, we see fierce competition for every project we’re going after. But even with that fierce competition, we’ve won six of the last seven projects we competed for. We attribute a lot of that to those repeat relationships.”

When Joe Marois opened the South Hadley-based construction firm that bears his name in 1972, business was conducted differently, and he was discouraged to see some of that fall away.

Joubin Hassanein

Joubin Hassanein

“We’re probably in the early stages of a very fast-changing scene within the construction industry. And I think it’s important for companies to be nimble enough to move with that change.”

“It was a complete joy. A lot of the work we did initially was, believe it or not, on a handshake. We were doing colleges and private work, a lot of the mills, very little public work. But there was an abundance of work, and we had large crews, and it was a different time.”

Heightened competition in the private sector, however, eventually shifted the dynamic.

“As people started seeing what we were doing, they started migrating into our area to the point where the profits became problematic for us. So we migrated into the public sector. And that’s a lot more difficult — it’s permitting-intense, it’s paperwork … the process is very difficult. We’re dealing with engineers who have to deal themselves with peer review, which increases the requirements for the project substantially. We’ve had to use attorneys more in the last 20 years than in prior years just to make sure we cross our Ts and so forth.”

Ryan Pelletier, project manager for Houle Construction in Ludlow, said his firm has been focused for more than 30 years on the healthcare and hospital industry.

“That’s been our mainstay, our bread and butter. We do other things, all kinds of commercial work. But 90%, of what we do is healthcare by virtue of our repeat customers.”

His father, company President Tim Pelletier, arrived at Houle as an estimator back in 1989, working for company founder Ray Houle. At the time, the firm was building Friendly’s and Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants up and down the East Coast, as both were in serious growth mode.

Later, “Ray saw some opportunities in healthcare, and also, some of the guys were settling down with wives and kids, and fewer of them wanted to do the traveling,” Ryan said. “So the team leaned into the healthcare sector. They found some idiosyncrasies and peculiarities about the sector that makes it unappealing for some companies, but we found a niche there.”

David Fontaine Jr.

David Fontaine Jr.

“When there are fewer projects out there and they’re more difficult to get, we see fierce competition for every project we’re going after.”

COVID was an interesting time, he added, as Houle built temporary structures at Baystate Medical Center and Cooley Dickinson Hospital to handle COVID overflow, among other projects, but infection-control measures at area hospitals didn’t make things easy. “We were really, really needed, but they also didn’t want us there.”

All these firms have traveled different paths and made unique impacts on the landscape — both literally and figuratively. But they’ve shared many challenges, too.

 

Priming the Pump

One substantial change across the industry has to do with workforce — in particular, the flow of young workers into the industry, which has slowed to a trickle, something every contractor we spoke with for this story recognized.

Many years ago, Marois said, each summer, “we’d have nine or 10 or more college students that would come here automatically, and we’d hire them all. They’d stay for the four-year college stint.”

Nowadays, even vocational-school graduates are slim pickings, he went on. “It doesn’t seem like a lot of people have ambitions to be in the trades anymore. Not a lot of people are showing up. We’re even advertising on television.”

Joe Marois

Joe Marois

“It doesn’t seem like a lot of people have ambitions to be in the trades anymore. Not a lot of people are showing up.”

Pelletier agreed. “The economy has been shifting. Traditionally, you got apprenticeship work in the field. Today, a lot of young people are being pushed toward college, and none are excited to come out of school with an expensive degree to go into a career where they didn’t need a degree to begin with.”

He hopes some might be drawn by rising salaries, especially for in-demand trades like HVAC. “Demand is as high as ever, so beginning wages are increasing, and the costs to us are increasing.”

Indeed, Marois said someone still learning on the job can make $17 an hour, and they could be making $45 to $50 on a public-works project not too much later. “There’s some incentive there for young people, the fact that you can start at that level that quickly. But it doesn’t seem to be enticing for a lot of these young people.”

Hassanein said some of the technology being used in construction today may draw more individuals to consider a career.

“We have a lot of connected systems and data, and being able to make decisions and being guided by that data is becoming more and more prominent in our world, where it wasn’t before. So the people you want to bring in are people that can do that type of work and can process that information and translate it to the job.”

Pelletier added that “the obvious answer is to make it more appealing, pay more, and offer more benefits, but we can also get people from different sectors, like warehousing and retail. That’s something I like to do — find people in my daily commute, at Dunkin’ Donuts or Men’s Wearhouse, somebody who has a good personality and is always working hard; I encounter them daily. They may be at a job that’s just paying the bills, and if I have a need for an apprentice, I can put them on a career path.

“Our only option at this point is to be more proactive than looking for the kids who go from trade school right into the industry,” he added. “Those kids don’t exist in large numbers anymore. So we have to deal with that.”

Hassanein added that the workforce shortage across the industry was in evidence before COVID, but the pandemic exacerbated the situation.

“When we talk about the workforce, there’s certainly a focus on inclusion — a broad mix of people of color and women, people who represent the area that we’re building. We want to help them not only get into the trades, but be successful in the trades.”

“I think our industry lost quite a bit of people in the last downturn and never really recovered. So, as an industry, we’re challenged,” he said, adding that casting a net for a more diverse workforce, including more women, would help.

Fontaine agrees, noting that Liz Wambui, the firm’s director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Impact since 2021, has made some positive headway in workforce matters.

“It’s great to see the construction industry embrace diversity in the workplace,” he said. “When we talk about the workforce, there’s certainly a focus on inclusion — a broad mix of people of color and women, people who represent the area that we’re building. We want to help them not only get into the trades, but be successful in the trades.

“That’s where Liz goes above and beyond; she works with different partners on pathways into the industry, and once someone is in the industry, she partners with them to help them transition from project to project and make those first couple of years a success so they can have a long-term career.”

Considering the current challenges, Fontaine added, “a lot of Liz’s role is focused on the workforce generally. It’s a need we have across all the trades we work with, and we’ve done some innovative things, like partnering with unions, which are very forward-thinking and helpful in coming up with ways to attract people into the trades and keep them.”

 

Something to Build On

Some of the challenges of today’s construction industry are sector-specific, like the trend toward hospitals being acquired by national players, as in the case of Mercy Medical Center and Trinity Health.

“Where that becomes a challenge is the powers that be are located elsewhere, and decisions are being made halfway across the country for things that are local,” Pelletier said. “They don’t necessarily understand the complexities of the local market.”

Hassanein said it’s a good time to work in education because many colleges are prioritizing energy efficiency and carbon neutrality, and DOC is helping them achieve those goals over a number of years. “We’re at Mount Holyoke, Trinity, and Amherst right now, for example. Those are multi-year projects.”

Some of this work is still in its infancy, he added, but it’s expanding quickly. “It’s definitely a great place to be. Almost every academic institution has a goal established, with a deadline, and until now, they’ve been kind of waiting because the technologies have been changing at a rapid pace, so they didn’t want to invest a lot too early and realize that it’s outdated. But now, the clock is ticking, and they’re all in full motion.

“We’re always evolving, and you have to be a company that’s nimble enough to evolve with the environment that you have,” Hassanein went on. “The continuous-change element is a really key part of any company’s success going forward.”

Fontaine agrees that sustainability, green building, and new technology are exciting elements of construction today, but he added that another aspect of his firm’s success is not getting too busy when times are busy.

“A lot of people will chase whatever the new sector is, whatever they think the new geography is; they want to grow just to grow and do as much volume as possible. Our goal is always to do as good a job as we can on projects where we can be successful and execute.”

Despite the workforce challenges, he added, “I think the industry is in a good place. It’s been a positive profession for the last 20-something years that I’ve been in it.”