ABC NJ president discusses state of industry as pandemic ebbs

Jeffrey Kanige//March 21, 2022//

ABC NJ president discusses state of industry as pandemic ebbs

Jeffrey Kanige//March 21, 2022//

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The real estate market in New Jersey has turned in a remarkable run over the past couple of years, despite the pandemic-related slowdown. New construction, along with repositioning and rehabilitation projects, is rapidly changing the built landscape around New Jersey. And someone has to do all that work.

Builders and contractors have faced many of the same challenges as businesses in other industries. Supply chain disruptions and rising costs of raw materials have been the main sources of distress. NJBIZ recently spoke with Samantha DeAlmeida, the president of Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group representing some 1,200 merit shop contractors around the state, about the state of the industry and the organization’s priorities.

“We’ve been playing a lot of defense in the last legislative session — there was quite a bit of unfair legislation proposed that favors union contractors heavily,” she said. “We’re not an anti-union organization, but we’re the advocate for fair footing and being able to bid projects fairly. It’s in the best interest of the taxpayer, it’s in the best interest of the folks that live in the communities, and it’s in the interest of minorities. … A large majority of minority contractors are merit shop contractors so when you take away their ability to bid projects, specifically on public workshops, and you’re taking … food off their tables and the ability for them to earn a living.”

Samantha DeAlmeida, president of Associated Builders and Contractors of New Jersey, speaks with NJBIZ Editor Jeff Kanige on March 1, 2022.
Samantha DeAlmeida, president of Associated Builders and Contractors of New Jersey, speaks with NJBIZ Editor Jeff Kanige on March 1, 2022.

What follows is an abridged version of that conversation. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity. A video of the full interview is available at njbiz.com/njbizconversations.

NJBIZ: My understanding is that your organization and [the African American Chamber of Commerce] are working together on an apprenticeship program. What are the origins of that and what does it look like now?

Sam DeAlmeida: This really was borne out of necessity that between myself and John Harmon we talked about opportunities in impoverished, diverse areas and how there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of programs offered to this untapped workforce previously. It looks like we’re going to start it in Camden and what we do is a construction readiness program so it allows folks to come in and learn about a field, a career in construction, learn about OSHA training, learn about blue-print reading, get their feet wet. We would outfit these individuals to make sure that they’re safe and properly dressed. Take away any barriers that they may have in terms of transportation to the classes. Provide them with the necessary technology and equipment. And then, if they graduate, they graduate with several certificates that they went through this program and at the end of it just about every single one of my members is looking to hire somebody.

The workforce in the field of construction is dwindling and as people start to retire we’re looking for a new generation of folks to get involved. So this would open the door for these individuals to get hired and have a full career in construction and ultimately be placed as an apprentice in our program.

Q: Now you’re starting in Camden. Is the focus going to be on urban areas in general, or is it more widespread than that?

A: So I intend to start it in Camden and I’m sure there’s going to be lots of lessons learned. Other chapters have run similar programs, specifically in Chicago, and they’ve been very successful. But, of course, you know New Jersey, is unique. So we want to start it in Camden and see how that goes. We’ve been able to make a lot of friendships and partnerships along the way. I think Camden will be a great success and jumping point for us to do this through other parts of the state as well. So I would like to do some more [in] central [New Jersey], and in the north as well, and then run these consistently, so that we have this stream of individuals young, middle aged, older folks that want to get involved. You know, really, the merit shop and the open shop we aren’t interested in turning anybody away, based on what you look like. If you want to work and you know you are interested in a career in construction we’re happy to entertain the idea of getting you hired and on the path.

Q: Along those same lines, just before we started you told me that we have coming up in March Women in Construction Week. I imagine you have some events or some programs around that.

A: So, we put a huge emphasis on women and construction. Women in Construction Week nationally is March 6 through the 12th. It’s actually international, and it takes place during the first full week of March and it highlights the great initiatives, the work of the women in the industry. So, it’s really a celebration. It’s a great opportunity for us to engage more young women in the field of construction and get them involved in apprenticeship programs. From my own experience, construction is not something that’s generally pitched toward young ladies in their middle school and high school days, unless they really seek that out and find those opportunities themselves. So we want to open that door, let them know that there are careers here where you can sustain a family, you can have a lower wage gap between you and your male counterparts.

You know, there are some very influential women in construction. We’re looking to have these young ladies have mentors and bring them up and be able to get their questions answered and ultimately just open the door for these young ladies to explore a field of construction and go down that path, if they choose.

Q: Right. It’s interesting because a couple of years ago, I think, we did a story about a program called Tools and Tiaras which was exactly what you’re talking about — involving young women, school aged women and actually putting tools in their hands, whether it was wrenches or hammers or saws or something else. And I remember when we did that, the reaction was “wow I had no idea that this sort of program existed” number one, and number two that girls would actually be in-terested in these sorts of businesses. But you’re hearing that indeed they are when they find out.

A: Absolutely, I think that opening that door for conversation and allowing young ladies to kind of venture into exploring a career path in construction without some of the preconceived notions of what a career and construction looks like is really beneficial and you know, women are an integral part of the field, so we want to make sure that we are celebrating and supporting and continuing to bolster women’s participation.

Q: OK, that leads me to a broader question I wanted to ask you about before I let you go and that has to do with the economic climate in general. Starting with one issue in particular, and that is labor shortages. We’ve heard a lot about that, particularly in retail and hospitality, but also in manufacturing. What is the situation in your business? What are you hearing from your members about how difficult it is to get folks who are skilled enough to do the jobs that they need done?

A: It’s very difficult. We’re in the same boat as many professionals are, trying to bolster this workforce and not having a ton of success or really a pool of appli-cants. So that’s where the African American Chamber and I have devised this program in Camden to create our own workforce. We’ve had to get creative.

I’m an adjunct teacher in my free time — what little of it I have — and the first question I always ask students is, why are you here? And often I see the students sitting in the back, they’re sitting on their hands, they’re not sure. And I talk to them after and they say well “I was told I had to be here, or I was told that this is the next step. So talking to students not only in that setting, but trying to get to them at a younger age when they’re still in high school, still in middle school and show them that a career in the trades, whether they go union or merit, whatever they decide to pursue, they can have a great life. It’s not a second-class career – that’s some of the language that I’ve heard previously. We have branded our program the other four-year degree. Students are working tremendously hard, they have to be consistent with their learning. They have to have on the job hours, they have to have after work-hours, where they’re getting taught in person and via Zoom.

There’s lots of opportunity, but at the same time, our industry has to kind of create this workforce and kind of change the understanding of what a career in construction looks like.

Q: And another issue that we’ve heard a lot from builders and contractors, has to do with the supply chain, the cost of materials. What are you hearing about that now? Is it still a big problem or has there been some improvement?

A: It’s still a huge problem, especially with everything going on overseas currently. You know there’s certainly a lot of fear of where this could continue to go. I don’t necessarily see an end in sight at this point. Our contractors have just gotten better at being able to estimate what products and materials are going to cost and a lot of times they sometimes take a loss on the chin because products end up costing more than they had conceived when they did the work. So it’s important that we get that path fixed but, nonetheless, we’re trying to do the best that we can with what we have.