Stimulus builders’ chance to adjust

Posted March 12, 2009, at 9:28 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — One of Maine’s top construction industry lobbyists told a group of area business and civic leaders Thursday that it’s an exciting time to be in construction.

“Exciting like you might find in a tiger’s cage,” said John O’Dea, executive director of Associated General Contractors of Maine and a former state representative and senator. “It’s rough out there.”

In all seriousness, though, O’Dea said there are 3,400 recently laid-off Maine construction workers who are eagerly awaiting one of the many projects deemed shovel-ready for federal dollars under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Many of those workers soon will be back on the job rebuilding roads and bridges and upgrading water and wastewater systems.

In a broader context, O’Dea said the federal stimulus package also could be an opportunity to advocate for future policy changes for the construction industry, not just to spend money.

“We need to stimulate our policymakers a little bit, too,” he urged members of the advisory panel of Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor. “They need guidance and perhaps a sense of urgency.”

Joyce Hedlund, EMCC’s president said the technical school of about 2,000 students has a vested interest in the future of the construction industry, which is largely why O’Dea was invited to speak. Hedlund explained that EMCC is one of many places where the next generation of engineers, designers, electricians and welders are bred.

O’Dea, whose organization represents about 270 construction companies statewide, said the current work force in Maine is aging. Many will retire within the next decade, yet there remains debate over whether there is sufficient interest in construction among the younger generation.

“We struggle with that every day,” he said.

A majority of the stimulus funding that Maine is set to receive will go toward infrastructure improvements such as roads and bridges, but also to upgrade wastewater systems and even schools. A little further down the line, though, O’Dea said Maine’s construction industry needs to look realistically at the emerging market. To that end, he praised this week’s State of the State address by Gov. John Baldacci and its focus on energy initiatives.

But O’Dea said Maine needs to go even further. He predicted that an estimated $300 million general obligation bond package soon will be debated and voted on in Augusta that will provide a supplement to the federal stimulus package. He also said changes need to be made to state regulatory agencies such as the Public Utilities Commission and the Land Use Regulation Commission to better facilitate private investment.

As the construction industry adapts to a new market demand, one that is focused heavily on energy, some who listened to O’Dea talk wondered whether the current work force has the necessary skills.

O’Dea doesn’t see that as a big issue.

“One of the great disservices is this idea that we can retrain all these displaced workers,” he said. “We don’t want to take an engineer and train them to do something else. We want them to be an engineer.”

Some also questioned the increased role of federal and state government over capitalism that is driven by the private industry. O’Dea responded that private investors are not investing right now, and he said the areas that are being targeted by stimulus dollars are essential.

No one doubted that the construction industry is changing.

Karl Ward, president and CEO of Nickerson and O’Day Inc., summed it up this way: “We need to increase our buoyancy or we’ll be sunk.”

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