Volume 36, Issue 6,  June 2001

 Overcoming Obstacles

In every profession there are challenges to be faced and conquered. The contract glazing field is no different. Whether it’s a need for qualified employees or maintaining good relationships with general contractors, contract glaziers are aware and in tune to their industry’s biggest obstacles. Having recognized the challenges, the next step contract glaziers must take is to find the ways and means to overcome the obstacles. 

Does Everyone Agree?
The numerous challenges contract glazing companies face can affect different organizations at varying times based on situations such as location, competition and the area’s employment rate. Craig Carson with A-1 Glass Inc. of Englewood, Colo., says all of the listed challenges most likely affect everyone in the industry at some point. “Maybe not everyone at the same time, but depending upon the situation, I think everyone is affected by all.” To Carson, one of the biggest issues his company faces is a lack of engineering knowledge. “Often we compete with those who don’t even engineer their jobs out. Architects are pushing the engineering on to the general contractors, who in turn push it on to the glazing contractors,” Carson said. “The most recent American Institute of Architects document says the liability of the engineering actually falls on the general contractor, who in turn passes it on to the sub that specializes in that area,” he added.

Financial situations and risk factors are two major concerns for Andy Gum, president of Thomas Glass Co. of Columbus, Ohio. “We have a 10-percent retainage held from us, which the owners and general contractor don’t have to pay until after the job is complete. Yet when we buy our materials, we have to pay in full,” he said. “The risk factor is also monumental on our end. We work with a lot of big companies that tend to shift the risk our way. There are risks in estimating, ordering, cutting … there is so much that has to happen right,” Gum added.

Gum says addressing the issue of timely payment matters deserves immediate attention, needing some sort of legislation that says a general contractor must pay his subs by a certain amount of time. “There is a big game that goes on with the general contractors and owners. They are making a lot of money ‘on the float.’” This means, that although the construction manager may have paid his general contractor, rather than paying his subs right away, the general contractor puts the money into a “sweep account,” where it accrues interest every day. The longer he waits to pay the subs, the more interest he makes. For projects worth millions of dollars the interest on that money can add up quickly. 

Some states, however, have a prompt pay law which says the general contractor must pay his subs within seven days of receipt of funding, but Gum doesn’t see the law as being very useful or helpful. “It’s a worthless piece of legislation,” he said. “You can sue over it, and our company has; we spent $15,000 in legal costs for a $9,000 award.” 

Chuck Clark, principal and vice president in charge of sales for Architectural Glass & Aluminum Co. Inc., based in Oakland, Calif., said the slowdown in the economy is the biggest challenge his company presently faces. “In our market, which is Northern and Southern California … we’re faced with transitioning from a robust commercial construction economy to one that is not. It has taken the place of our personnel concerns,” said Clark. “We are now faced with shifting from commercial office projects to finding work in the public sector, such as schools and hospitals. With the commercial end slowing down, we have to find ways to pick up the slack,” he added. 

Clark adds that the downturn of all the dot-com companies that sprang up rampantly a few years ago has also led his company to give consideration to the project on which it bids. “With the dot-com downturn there is now a massive amount of office space up for lease,” he said. “We’re changing our focus to projects such as multi-story residential and possibly some renovation. In Northern California it’s going to take awhile till we’re back in our niche market—at least a year to 18 months—because there is such a high vacancy rate on the commercial end right now.” 

The Worker Crunch
Many glazing contractors also see the need for not just more employees, but those who are qualified as a considerable challenge. They are now examining the reasons why the industry is lacking in that area. “We haven’t done a good job as an industry of recruiting kids in; we need to try and get kids interested in the trade, but they are all wanting the high-tech jobs,” Carson said. “We need to get to the kids earlier … maybe get some metal fabrication back into schools and have the kids making more than just ashtrays. We haven’t given [recruitment efforts] the attention it really deserves,” he added. 

“We are starting to suffer because there are so few young people coming into this industry,” said Gum. “Right now the average age is 45 to 50, and that’s too old. Plus, there’s a big difference in having enough people and having enough qualified people,” he added.

“Of all the issues discussed [at the Glass Association of North America’s (GANA) Building Envelope Contractor’s (BEC) conference] (see list page 37) I think the key point, is our industry would best be suited by attracting and keeping talented and quality people,” said Clark. “That covers the whole gamut of forces in the field as well as in offices.” 

“Creating a positive culture for employees to work is also important,” Gum added. “In any business there are personnel issues. It’s not just about getting people to come work for you, but keeping them there.”

Adding a general contractor’s perspective, Bill Nash with McCarthy Construction Co. in St. Louis, who also sat on the BEC panel, echoed these concerns. “It’s a lot of work to train and prepare people for the business,” he said. “There are so many people retiring or leaving the industry, and the construction field isn’t very appealing to kids coming out of high school or college.”

Other Issues
Struggles with payment matters and finding qualified employees may seem to be the most common matters on the minds of contract glaziers, but they are not the only concerns. One difficulty they face is the fact that buildings are erected much more quickly than they were only a few years ago. “They [buildings] keep going up faster and faster, and while computer aided design, a tool that has made our jobs easier, helps us with that, it [buildings going up quicker] could cause the quality of the job to suffer,” said Gum.

Clark also sees the risks involved with faster schedules and says the concerns go back to not having adequate staff. “The reduction in employees forces both areas—pre-construction tasks and those during the accelerated schedule—to react quicker than normal,” he said. 

This leads to the question of safety. “There is an absolute concern over safety. The faster the project goes up, the faster you have to move in the field and the more chance there is of someone getting hurt,” Clark said. “At our company, we have a full-time safety manager, and his job is to monitor those working in the field. It has really paid off,” he said. “There is a definite correlation between accelerated schedules and safety.” 

Another challenge common among contract glaziers is deciphering architects’ drawings. “The architectural drawings we get normally are abbreviated, and by the time the project is ready to erect they have been refined in our own shop drawings,” said Clark. 

“The quality of architectural drawings is horrible—we don’t know what they want,” said Gum. “Like contract glaziers, architects are also under quicker restraints, and the drawings we get are often incomplete, so we have to make interpretations of what they want; we can’t get an accurate bid.” Although calling the architect and asking what a certain aspect of the drawing is, is an option, contract glaziers are often under time restraints to bid the project, making it difficult to find answers to the many questioning pieces of the drawings.

While some problems may be a concern regardless of the contract glazier’s location, Carson adds that some depend simply on where the project is located. “Seismic testing, for example, is mostly done on the West Coast,” he said. “It’s not something that would typically be done in Georgia.” 

Finding the Answers
Having realized the challenges and obstacles the industry is facing, contract glaziers must next find ways to overcome the varying situations. “We need to continue to have dialogue with one another so we can talk about the problems,” Carson said. “We need to be able to break down barriers as an industry. We get all wrapped up in fearing that we will lose a job to the cheaper competitor. We just need to be aware and not so suspicious of each other and our motives. We need to get past the fear of admitting we were wrong,” he added.

“What we have to do is dedicate some time and resources as an industry to addressing these issues,” Clark said. “They are so broad that in this industry it is difficult to meet on our own, but we can do it as a whole.”

Gum encourages activity with the American Subcontractor’s Association (ASA). “It is the only organization out there lobbying for subcontractors and negotiating with the American General Contractor’s Association.” He continued, “ASA is also fighting to remove retainage, and there needs to be a reform on how long the general contractor can take to pay his subs.”

Talking things through may even be the answer in some cases. “We always welcome discussion and requests from our subcontractors,”

USG

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