To cover developing challenges
and opportunities in today’s construction industry, and, more specifically, the
finishing trades, IUPAT’s International Finishing Trades Institute (IFTI) Director
Anton Ruesing joins us on today’s episode. He and the larger IUPAT organization
are actively working on several strategies to raise the bar in the industry.
A second portion of this episode will be coming later this month, while a complete transcript of part one is available below. For more information, contact: IFTI, www.ifti.edu.
Stephanie Chizik: Thanks so much for joining us, Anton.
Anton Ruesing: I’m happy to be here, Stephanie. Thanks for having me.
SC: Why don’t we start by giving a bit of a background — either your personal background, if you’d like, or IFTI?
AR: Sure. I’m a painter by trade, and I usually start off by telling people that because I’m a blue-collar guy. I started working out in the field, and I’ve got some experience with the subject that we’re going to talk about today. I’ve got a lot of experience working out in the field. I know what it’s like to put your body through the rigors of the construction world. I’ve seen what it can do to you. That’s kind of my background. I’m a construction worker, painter by trade. I worked my way through the apprenticeship program. Started working out in the field, started helping out around the union hall.
At some point, they asked me to start working in the office, teaching classes, revising some forms. Now I find myself the director of the Finishing Trades Institute, and I have the opportunity to make a lot of really impactful changes to the way that we do business and some of the programs that we work on. That’s kind of where I came from. Our primary purpose at the FTI is to train workers for the IUPAT and our signatory contractors.
SC: That’s great. It sounds like you have a very organic journey from where you were to where you are now. It makes sense that you're a great fit for that role, obviously, since you know what people have to go through in the field.
AR: Yes, it was an interesting career path. I never picked this. I started painting to pay for college. I realized somewhere along the line that I actually loved painting and I loved working in construction. I kind of had my foot in both worlds. At one point I worked for EDS in the tech industry, so I have some experience in the office as well as in the field. It’s a unique path that brought me here. Everything that came before in my life kind of set me up for where I am today.
SC: It’s funny, I feel like I hear that story a lot, that a lot of contractors who we work with, particularly at CoatingsPro, enter the field like you said, to make money for college or between high school and college, or a friend’s dad, or something like that, and they just sort of fell in love with it. It’s a common story and a great one to share.
AR: I see that a lot too. A lot of people “end up” painting. That’s what they’ll say, is “How’d you end up painting.” A lot of people take that path. You don’t really expect it, but you find that you love it.
SC: I actually think that’s an interesting segue into one of the challenges that I think the industry has been having, is finding enough people in the industry to fill these positions — whether that’s just because people don’t think of it as a viable career path or just a lack of labor in general. Right now, across the board, I know it’s not just specific to construction. Can you speak a little bit to that labor gap?
AR: I think one of the issues — and I experienced this in my own life — we’re told from when we’re little kids that if you're going to make anything out of yourself, you have to go to college. Everybody focuses on the white-collar world and wanting their kids to have a better life than them. That’s the kind of things that we tell ourselves and tell our kids. People don’t really think of construction as a viable career path when they’re growing up. They want to be a doctor. They want to be a lawyer. They want to be the president. They want to be something a little more white collar. I think that’s part of the reason.
It’s not a glamorous lifestyle when you're on the outside looking into the construction world. But the reality of it is, most construction workers make really good money. You don’t have a bunch of student loans at the end of your apprenticeship program or the end of your training. You don’t have a lot of student loans to pay back. You’ve made good money the whole way through. A lot of the programs today are offering college credit. Most of our apprentices graduate their apprenticeship program and with a couple classes, they can get their associate degree and actually go on to their bachelor’s degree as well. But not a lot of people know that. And a lot of parents want to push their kids toward college directly.
I can tell you just my own experience. When I was 18 years old, just getting out of high school, I was not ready for college. I really — it took me a few years to mature enough to understand what it takes, what kind of hard work it takes to make it in life. I think you need those couple years in a lot of circumstances to mature. If you go through an apprenticeship program or you get into construction, you make good money, you learn great skills that no one can ever take away from you, and no matter what you always have something that you can fall back on.
With my kids, I’ve chosen a different path than what my parents did. I tell my kids they’re going through an apprenticeship before they go to college. If they decide they want to do that down the road, that’s great. But I want them to learn a skilled trade before they attempt college. I want them to learn to make money. I want them to learn what a dollar’s worth, how hard it is to earn. Again, if they want to go to college after that, great. They’ll have that set of skills behind them that no one can ever take away from them.
SC: That seems so smart. It sounds like something that maybe a little bit of redirection of our society could benefit from across the board, not just the people who are taking those courses, but also the people who need the crew members on their team. It’s just so interesting. You did mention a little bit ago that you have experience in the office as well as in the field. I know that you guys also at IFTI, you had actually something in between, where you have your training facility. Can you walk us through about that?
AR: Sure. Do you meant at the local level or here in Hanover, what we do?
SC: I’ve gotten to stop by the one in Hanover, so I guess that one, but I know that you have a much wider reach across the country. So I guess just in general, what does IFTI do to help the industry? You mentioned wanting to raise the bar in the industry and that aspect of it.
AR: Sure. We have 105 training centers across the United States and Canada. We incorporate a lot of different trades. We’re not just painters. We also have glazing, drywall finishing, floor covering, wall covering installation. We have a lot of different trades, but specific to the painting industry, we have training centers all over the U.S. and Canada that train apprentices and takes someone with little to no experience and teach them all the skills that are necessary for them to make a career out of it. We also do journeyman upgrade training. So when there’s new techniques, new tools, new products, just to come in and upgrade your skills, we offer upgrade training for journeymen.
Then in Hanover, what we did is a little bit different. Our Hanover facility is really designed to be a “train the trainer.” Most of our trainers — we occasionally will bring someone in from the outside to teach a third-party-type class — but most of our trainers are tradespersons that go through the apprenticeship program, that come up through the trades. They work out in the field. We bring them in, we teach them the skills necessary to be an adult educator so that they can go back locally and then teach those classes. Most of our instructors are home grown, so to speak. They’re painters, glaziers, drywall finishers. They come from the trades. They have that skill set. They have that background. Then we give them the adult education skills necessary to be able to pass on that knowledge.
SC: That sounds great. What is the overall goal of what IFTI does? Is there — challenges, obviously, in the industry that we’re working against, I think, especially right now. If people are listening, this is taped during the COVID-19 pandemic is still going on. So that’s certainly affecting things, I’m sure, for everyone.
AR: Absolutely. When COVID first started, one of the issues, we were really worried about people being out of work. As things started to shut down, we were worried about our members not working, not being able to go out and make money and support their families. Then we realized, once construction was deemed an essential industry, the opposite became a factor. We started worrying about people going to work while this pandemic was going on and potentially getting sick and bringing it home to their families. It’s been a real challenge from the labor perspective, just in general, that balance between wanting to go to work to make money to pay your bills, but at the same time being scared about your own personal health and safety and that of your family.
For us, from the FTI perspective, teaching those classes, not being able to have courses in person, having to shift to a distance learning model, has been difficult. We’ve overcome it in a lot of different ways; just like everyone else we’ve had to learn to cope with the new challenges that we’re all facing today. So it’s been tough, it’s been interesting, but I think we have risen to the challenge. Our mission essentially remains the same, and that’s to raise the bar in the industry, to provide the men and women in the trades the skills necessary to go out and do their jobs, make money, provide for their family, come home safe at the end of the day. That’s our real focus, more than anything else. Train people, teach them how to work safety, given them the skills to be able to build a career for themselves.
What we don’t do here is just provide jobs. What we do here is train people for their career. It’s a pretty cool thing to stand back at the end of the day and realize that you've given somebody a tool to make their life better. That’s what we really try to focus on. We partner with a lot of organizations that have that same philosophy — raising the bar, giving people the skills necessary to provide for their family, providing some standards in the industry, providing direction in the industry, making sure that things are done correctly. That’s really all the types of things that FTI really focuses on.
SC: I’m glad you expanded a little bit, because I was wondering what exactly “raise the bar” means. If I’m hearing you correctly, it sounds like the overarching goal is to raise the application of the coatings and for the contractor, but by that end goal, you could do that by being safer in the field or knowing those tips of tricks. Is that accurate, sound about right?
AR: There’s a lot of things that go into it, especially as a painter. A lot of people will say painting’s a red-headed stepchild of the trades. We all kind of laugh about it when people talk about it. When you pass a water tower, a building, a bridge, something like that, what the average person sees is the aesthetics. They see the paint that’s on there as a decorative finish. For us, it’s a protective coating. It’s there to increase the life span of that particular structure, to provide safety from contaminations in the case of water, provide a protective coating to protect people as well. Those are the types of things — those systems are engineered. People spend a lot of money designing the coating, designing these systems, designing the structure, designing the building, and you have to protect that investment that’s made.
One of the things that we really try to push for is training at all levels. The asset owners that pay these people to design these structures or these facilities, the coatings manufacturers that design the product, the people that design all the other building materials, after the installation of all of that, painting is typically one of the last trade’s that’s in. That final finish isn’t just for aesthetics; it’s to protect that structure. You don’t want somebody that’s unqualified or doesn’t understand how to install that, in some circumstances, multi-million-dollar coating system, where it fails. Instead of getting a 20-year life span out of a structure, you’re getting a 2- or 3- or 5-year life span out of that structure. Painting goes way beyond the aesthetics, and it’s about asset protection and all of those types of things.
The training has to be across the board. Train people what to expect. Train people to do the installation. Make sure that you have a qualified workforce, a contractor that can actually get the job done. Make sure that there’s inspections along the way to make sure that everything is done correctly. That’s really what raising the bar is about, is making sure that everybody that’s involved in a project, from start to finish, understands what’s expected of them. They meet the standards or the specifications that’s laid out, and ultimately, you're giving that asset owner what they expect and what they’re paying for.
When we’re talking about public works projects, you're talking about giving the people that are paying their taxes to build these things and to manage these things, what they’re paying for. Asset protection’s a big part of it, and the best way to do that is make sure that everybody along the way is properly trained, properly qualified, and then at the end of the day, gives people what they’re painting for.
SC: I would even take it one step further and say that it also helps ensure the safety of the general population. If you talk about something like you just mentioned, a tank of some sort, whether it’s water or wastewater or oil and gas, if that coating is not applied properly or if it fails prematurely, then that could affect the area as well, which could have huge implications for the environment in the local area. So great work, it sounds like.
AR: Absolutely. People don’t think what the inside of a tank looks like. I’ve seen it. My colleagues have seen what the inside of them looks like. Some of them are in great shape. Some of them aren’t. Some of them will make you want to drink bottled water every day. The same thing goes for a bridge or something, a structure over a waterway. I’m sure we’ve all driven down the road and you’ve seen tarps dangling off a bridge, down into the water. You’ve seen holes in tarps and in containment.
If the bridge was built prior to 1970, 1971 timeframe, there’s a good chance that there’s lead-based paint that’s in there. If you're blasting that stuff off and it’s falling down into the water — if you're not doing it correctly, you don’t have your containment built properly, you don’t have qualified workers working on it — a lot of that paint could end up in the water, which means you’ve got lead in the water. The fish eat the lead, people are pulling fish out of that river, lake, stream, whatever it might be, and then they’re eating that and they’re ingesting that lead. So there’s another point where the average person doesn’t think about that, but it could have really negative effects if we don’t have the right people doing that work.
You need to be properly trained and follow safety procedures to get you home safe at the end of the day, but then, like you said, Stephanie, protect the public from doing something improperly and potentially contaminating the environment or the water.
SC: Right. You just mentioned tanks and bridges. Are there other substrates or assets, I should say, that you guys specifically work on over there?
AR: We work on pretty much anything that could be painted, we have people painting it. We’ve got people working on bridges, on theme parks, people working in D.C. on some of the buildings in D.C., people working in nuclear power plants. We paint everything from residential homes, stripes on the pavement, to again nuclear power plants, theme parks, commercial structures. Just about anything can be painted. There are actually people that do painting underwater. They do it a little bit different, but there’s actually people that do that type of work.
We represent pretty much anybody that’s in the industry. Any painting that’s being done, we have members that are doing that type of work. For our contractors, we train to do pretty much anything they need. If they have a special project coming up, there’s a new finish, new technique, new process, we’ll work with the manufacturers and the vendors to be able to ride that train for our members and our contractors so that they can do that work and do that installation correctly.
SC: I think I just want to give one clarifying — I don’t want to speak for you, but I do know this is a really sticky situation, or at least some people have very strong opinions. When you say “paint,” you mean linings, coatings, any sort of liquid-applied coating material. Is that accurate?
AR: Absolutely. The general public typically calls it paint. For us, we do call it coatings, linings. A lot of times, we’ll just say paint because that’s what your average person understands. I guess, thinking about your audience, your audience does understand the different in paint, protective coatings, linings, etc.
SC: Yes. Like I said, it doesn’t bother me, but I think it can be a pain point for some people if they —
SC: Great. Any other things you’d like to talk about today while we’ve got you on the phone? Challenges in the industry that we’re working on or where maybe you see the future of the industry heading? Who knows these days, especially with what’s going on, what we just talked about, but there’s got to be some light at the end of the tunnel, right?
AR: Yes. That’s a hard one. I could actually talk about this kind of stuff all day. The thing that’s probably the most important to me is, like we talked about a couple minutes ago, raising the bar in the industry and taking it to the next level.
I don't think enough people understand that this is a skilled trade. This isn’t just something that anybody can do. You don’t run to your local big box store, buy a gallon of paint, and slap it on a bridge. Not everybody can do this type of work. It takes special training. We talk about things in thousandths of an inch when we’re applying these coating systems. You can’t just walk out, grab a bucket, and then start painting. You have to do a proper installation, which means you need to be properly trained. That’s what it really comes back to, is following standards, doing proper training, having qualified workforce, qualified contractor.
There’s a lot of people that went out when the economy got bad. Back in 2008, there was a lot of people that were painting houses that decided they could hang a shingle when the market dried up painting houses. They thought they could get into commercial and industrial painting, and they’re not doing it correctly. It’s not a union versus non-union issue. It’s a properly installed system versus an improperly installed system. A qualified contractor versus an unqualified contractor. A qualified applicator versus a non-qualified applicator. Raising the bar in the industry benefits everybody. That’s what we really look to do here.
The good thing about me being in training is I don’t have to get involved in the politics that go with union versus non-union, though a lot of people like to talk about it. I get to focus on raising the bar in the industry. I get to focus on working with organizations that want to see the bar raised, give people what they’re paying for, do that proper installation of these protective coating systems. That’s what it’s really about for me and for the folks that I work with, is taking it to the next level and then providing that training that gives people the tools necessary, the skills necessary to provide for their family for years to come, come home safe at the end of the day.
SC: That’s a great mission. Hopefully we can continue making that happen moving forward. Thank you so much for sharing everything with us today, Anton. If people want to reach out to you afterwards or find out more about IUPAT or the International Finishing Trades Institute, how can they do that?
AR: If they are interested in IUPAT, www.IUPAT.org. They can go to www.IFTI.edu to reach out to us at Finishing Trades Institute specifically. I’m always happy to talk about protective coatings with anybody. If you're interested in what we do, interested in becoming involved, I’m happy to talk with anybody, happy to share my views and contribute anything I can.
SC: We sincerely appreciate it on the CoatingsPro side. Thanks again so much for your time, Anton. Have a great one.
AR: Thank you. You, too.