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Summer Special

Andrew Crane says the Home Show helps contractors fill their pipeline with future work.

Even though they’re busy now, Andrew Crane says the Home Show helps contractors fill their pipeline with future work.

By Mark Morris

In the old days — prior to the pandemic — when homeowners wanted to make improvements to their property, they called several contractors for competitive bids. Once a contractor was selected, the job would start shortly after that.

Since the pandemic, those days are long gone. Contractors are busier than ever, and building materials have been affected by worldwide supply shortages and price hikes. Now, homeowners seeking a contractor can leave a phone message, but may not receive a call back.

For those reasons and many more, the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts is staging a “special summer edition” of the Western Mass Home & Garden Show, usually held each March.

Andrew Crane, executive director of the association, told BusinessWest that, even though contractors are busy, the event (scheduled for Aug. 20-22) fills an important need.

“Many people will research their home project online, but at some point they need to see and touch the products they want and speak to professionals who can get the job done,” Crane said. “The Home Show allows them to move the project forward and not wait for a callback.”

The Home Show also works for contractors because it allows them to fill their project pipeline with future work.

“While most contractors are straight out right now, many don’t know what their business will be like in the coming fall and winter months,” Crane said.

By labeling it a “special summer edition,” Crane made it clear this is intended to be a one-time event. Plans are full speed ahead for the 2022 Home Show in its traditional late-March timing. The summer show is a way to fill the void left when COVID-19 forced cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 editions of the Home Show.

The special edition will be a scaled-down version of the full show, running only three days instead of four and setting up in only one building at the Eastern States Exposition grounds. The smaller event will still look similar to past shows, with booths set up in the Better Living Center and several outdoor displays.

Chris Grenier, owner of Grenier Painting & Finishing, said he appreciates having any version of the Home Show this year.

“I’m very busy right now, but it’s well worth it for me to be at the show because I still need a steady stream of work that I can plan for in the months ahead,” he explained.

Chris Grenier says even a scaled-back show brings value to vendors.

Chris Grenier says even a scaled-back show brings value to vendors.

BusinessWest spoke with a few contractors who have found both short-term and long-term benefits from participating in the show.

Frank Webb Home in Springfield sells a wide range of kitchen and bath fixtures, as well as lighting. Manager Lori Loughlin said taking a booth at the Home Show is well worth the investment.

“We often see a 40% increase in business right after the Home Show,” Loughlin said. “Even though we’re in a busy time right now, that can change, so we want people to keep us in the loop when they plan their kitchen and bath projects in the future.”

For the last five years, Gisele Gilpatrick, project manager for Pro-Tech Waterproofing Solutions in Chicopee, has chaired the Home Show organizing committee. Her company has always done well at the event.

“It’s a chance to meet people one on one and for them to collect business cards,” she said. “People will often call us six months to a year after the show to say they are ready to fix their wet basement.” She also said it’s not unusual to hear from people up to five or six years later.

When Gilpatrick meets people at the Pro-Tech booth, they often share photos with her, but they are not of children and pets. “They bring us pictures of their basements and say, ‘this is what my nightmare looks like,’” she said, adding that an interesting dynamic happens when someone describes the specifics of their wet-basement problem.

Gisele Gilpatrick says the lingering pandemic has forced show organizers to constantly reassess safety protocols.

Gisele Gilpatrick says the lingering pandemic has forced show organizers to constantly reassess safety protocols.

“One person might be telling us their story, and others who overhear become interested in the conversation because they have similar problems in their basements,” she said. “The next thing you know, a group of people are gathered around our booth.”

 

Safety First

While gathering at a booth can be good for business, this year, people will need to take social distancing into consideration when they congregate. The emergence of the Delta variant of COVID has show organizers making constant adjustments to their safety protocols.

“In planning the show, we’ve gone back and forth from wearing masks to not wearing masks as mandates keep changing, so it won’t be a surprise if they change again,” Gilpatrick said.

The maintenance staff at the Exposition grounds have boosted their protocols with more frequent surface cleaning during the show. They have also strongly encouraged people to wear masks. Crane advised, “if you are at all uncomfortable, wear your mask.”

Despite all that, Gilpatrick believes it’s worth attending the show, and for some, the scaled-down version might be easier to navigate.

“The crowds at the March Home Show can be overwhelming for some people,” she said. “This edition of the show will be easier to get around, and we will still have lots of quality exhibitors.”

Lori Loughlin says finding a contractor can be difficult right now

Lori Loughlin says finding a contractor can be difficult right now, and the Home Show can help make those connections.

As people have stayed closer to home for the last 18 months, many have set aside the money they would normally have spent on vacations and going out, and are using those funds instead to make improvements to the inside and outside of their homes, a trend Loughlin said is far from over. “People who are planning home projects now have been looking at their houses for a year and a half, and they are ready to make some changes.”

Crane emphasized the importance of planning and noted that the combination of busy contractors, shortages of certain building materials, and difficulty finding enough laborers all contribute to projects taking more time than in the past.

“Plan as far ahead as you possibly can,” he said. “I don’t want to scare anyone from doing a project, but planning is more important than it’s ever been.”

Grenier said good planning starts with recognizing that everyone is busy right now. “If folks go to the Home Show looking to make an interior improvement, they should plan it as a winter project. If it’s an exterior project, plan for next spring.”

Crane agreed. “The days of getting prices from four or five contractors are going away. If you talk with a contractor who gives you a reasonable price and you have a comfort level with them, sign them up.”

Loughlin said just finding a contractor to start a project is now more challenging. “The Home Show gives people an opportunity to meet contractors they might not have known about who can help them. It’s a chance to meet contractors in person and establish a point person to contact.”

The real opportunity is moving past thinking about a project, to making it happen, she added. “I believe people will come to the Home Show because many are at the point where they’ve done all they can online, and now it’s time to broaden what’s actually possible.”

Crane also emphasized how the Home Show has become a social event. For a $10 admission, it gives people an inexpensive time outside the house. It also allows people to see and touch new products.

“For the low cost of getting into the Home Show,” he said, “you might see that one thing that completes the puzzle of putting together your project.”

Construction

Something to Build On

By Joe Bousquin

The term ‘construction’ appears 636 times in the $908 billion pandemic relief package and $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump at the end of December.

In other words, while the relief package was less than half the size of last spring’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, there’s still plenty in the overall bill for contractors to be happy about.

“Lots of construction spending is always a good thing, as long as everyone has access to it,” said Kristen Swearingen, vice president of Legislative and Political Affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors. Her cautionary tone refers to the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which many non-union contractors oppose, potentially being passed in the 117th Congress after Democrats regained control of the Senate earlier this month.

But in general, construction advocates said the new pandemic relief package should be viewed as a win.

“This bill for the construction industry has a lot of good things overall,” said Jimmy Christianson, vice president of Government Relations at Associated General Contractors of America. “I would say, on the list of the many things we were asking for, we got probably 80%.”

“This bill for the construction industry has a lot of good things overall. I would say, on the list of the many things we were asking for, we got probably 80%.”

Nevertheless, one lament is that the package doesn’t include liability protection for employers against lawsuits from employees who were exposed to or became infected with COVID-19 at work.

Here’s a closer look at some of the provisions that should help contractors in 2021:

• Paycheck Protection Program. There are several wins for contractors in the the legislation’s renewed PPP funding, including a provision to ensure expenses paid for with forgiven PPP loans are tax-deductible, an issue many contractors were wringing their hands over last fall.

• Expansion of the Employee Retention Tax Credit. This gives qualifying employers a $5,000 credit per worker for employees not paid with PPP funds in 2020, as well as a $7,000 credit per worker per quarter in the first half of 2021.

“That’s a huge deal for construction companies and employees to help manage the continuing uncertainty that’s still happening,” Christianson said.

• State transportation funding. One of the headline numbers for contractors is the $10 billion earmarked for state DOTs, many of which saw their funding decline in 2020. That should provide relief for road and other civil builders who have increasingly felt the impacts of stalled projects.

“It will help mitigate the impact of bid-letting delays and project cancellations that we saw in 2020 throughout the country,” Christianson said. “And the fact that it’s dedicated funding means that states can’t use it for other things.”

• School construction. The package also includes $82 billion for education, at least some of which can be used for construction and renovations post-COVID-19, when students return en masse to classrooms.

 

Joe Bousquin reports on the construction industry for Construction Dive.

Construction

People Pipeline

Eighty percent of construction firms report they are having a hard time filling hourly craft positions that represent the bulk of the construction workforce, according to a national, industry-wide survey released last week by Autodesk and Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). Association officials said the industry was taking a range of steps to address the situation but called on federal officials to assist those industry efforts.

“Workforce shortages remain one of the single most significant threats to the construction industry,” said Stephen Sandherr, AGC’s CEO. “However, construction labor shortages are a challenge that can be fixed, and this association will continue to do everything in its power to make sure that happens.”

Of the nearly 2,000 survey respondents, 80% said they are having difficulty filling hourly craft positions, Sandherr noted. All regions of the country are experiencing similarly severe craft-worker shortages, with 83% of contractors in the West and South reporting a hard time filling hourly craft positions, slightly higher to the 81% rate in the Midwest and 75% rate in the Northeast.

Seventy-three percent of firms report it will continue to be difficult, or get even harder, to find hourly craft workers over the next 12 months. One reason for their worries is that contractors are skeptical of the quality of the pipeline for recruiting and preparing new craft personnel. Forty-five percent say the local pipeline for preparing well-trained and skilled workers is poor. And 26% say the pipeline for finding workers who can pass a drug test is poor.

Labor shortages are prompting many firms to boost pay and compensation. Two-thirds of firms report they have increased base pay rates for craft workers. And 29% report they are providing incentives and bonuses to attract craft workers. Firms are also taking a greater role in developing their own workforce. Forty-six percent say they have launched or expanded in-house training programs, and half report getting involved in career-building programs.

“Construction workforce shortages are prompting many firms to innovate their way to greater productivity,” said Allison Scott, head of Construction Integrated Marketing at Autodesk. “As the cost of labor continues to increase and firms look to become even more efficient, technology can enable better collaboration and ultimately lead to more predictable outcomes. There is also opportunity in untapped pools of talent such as tradeswomen, veterans, and young people looking for an alternative to the traditional four-year university.”

Scott noted that 29% of firms report they are investing in technology to supplement worker duties. One-quarter of firms report they are using cutting-edge solutions, including drones, robots and 3-D printers. Meanwhile, 23% of firms report they are taking steps to improve job-site performance by relying on lean construction techniques, using tools like building information modeling and doing more off-site prefabrication.

Association officials called on the federal government to boost funding for career and technical education. They also called on federal leaders to allow more immigrants to enter the country to work in construction, let construction students at community and career colleges qualify for federal Pell Grants, and make it easier for firms to establish apprenticeship and other training programs.

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