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 recently joined us for the second and final episode of this exclusive series. A complete transcript is available below. Ruesing and the larger IUPAT organization
are actively working on several strategies to raise the bar in the industry.
Part 1 of this series is available here.
For more information, contact: IFTI, www.ifti.edu.
Stephanie Chizik: Thanks again for joining us, Anton.
Anton Ruesing: Thank you, Stephanie. I’m thrilled to be here.
SC: Why don’t we start by giving that brief, overall background of where you came from in the industry?
AR: I’m a coatings applicator by trade. I went through the apprenticeship program. I started in 1996, and I really did it to pay for college. It was kind of a means to an end, and I realized that I loved the trades. I loved being a painter. I started taking every class that I could. I went through the inspector programs. I have multiple credentials. I got my PCS.
What I really found was my best love, after first getting into the trades and going through all the training myself, was actually training other people. I’ve trained thousands of people to date, going through our various programs, working with both NACE and SSPC. Our organization kind of does the same thing. We’ve been training people for over 100 years —[we] started with Registered Apprenticeship back in 1934 when FDR first signed the executive order to start the Registered Apprenticeship programs. So we’ve been doing it for a long time and it’s something that I personally love and something that our organization gets a lot of value out of and helps raise the bar in the industry. That’s my background and where our organization’s at.
SC: Could you also — to me it’s also worth describing the difference or how the two different organizations work. I know you’re related to IUPAT but you work separately, meaning the International Finishing Trades Institute (IFTI). Can you explain that relationship?
AR: Absolutely. The union focuses on representing workers in the workplace, and they do all the typical representational activity. Working on contracts. Making sure that work rules are enforced. Making sure that contractors have the manpower that they need. Doing all those types of things.
What the FTI does is we just focus specifically on the training, certifications, on that side of it. We are a separate organization, a separate legal entity. The way that our funds are structured — and this is through the Registered Apprenticeship Act — the way our funds are structured is it’s a joint venture between labor and management. Folks that are representatives of the union and folks that our representatives of our contractors actually comprise the board that governs what FTI focuses on, what direction we go in. It’s a joint labor-management board, and that’s one of the things that makes it unique and one of the reasons why Registered Apprenticeship is such a good idea, is because it’s jointly managed. You ensure that the union is getting what they need. You make sure that the contractors are getting what they need.
We make sure that we stay on top of the latest trends in the industry because it’s managed by a group that’s working in the industry on a daily basis. We’re very closely affiliated with the union because they, again, comprise our board along with contractors. But we are a separate organization.
SC: It does sound like a very holistic approach to the industry, which I feel like might give you a good place, a good viewpoint on some of the current challenges that the contractors are going through. Do you have any insight as to the top pain points that a lot of these painting contractors are going through these days?
AR: Sure. One thing I didn’t mention, it’s a little outside of FTI, but I also manage our Labor Management Fund, which is a similar structure. It’s labor and management, jointly run organization. We focus on the LMCI side and the LMP side, which is the name of the fund. We focus on specifically those issues and how to address them, so it goes beyond just the training and it gets into the challenges that it looks like we’re going to be facing in the next 5, 10, 15 years. There’s potentially economic recession, partially as a result of COVID. It’s just trending that way.
Projects are getting increasingly complex. The more complex they get, there’s this migration of risk from the general contractor to the subcontractors or the trade contractors as well as the owners. That’s a big issue for our contractors. These mega projects, I think we’ll see more and more of those as the years go on. There’s probably going to be some short-term infrastructure spending that will be good for us, because the infrastructure’s kind of falling down around us. That will present some opportunities. One of the big ones is the gap between the skilled and the unskilled workforce. More and more people are retiring every day, those experienced — we call them journeymen — but those experienced journeymen are retiring, and they’re not being replaced at a fast enough rate. That’s a big issue.
That’s one of the things that we focus on with FTI, specifically, is closing that gap by training and getting our workers certified. Bunch of technologies challenges and changes that are coming. Things like predictive AI. Again, that migration of risk from the GCs down to the trade contractors, and using predictive AI to figure out where some of those pinch points might be. There’s going to be changes with robotics. It’s going to be hard to replace a worker. It’s going to be hard to replace the person on the job, but there’s going to be a lot of augmentation with robotics, I think. Huge changes in the way that we train.
SC: The robotics thing is so interesting to a lot of people. My understanding is it’s not necessarily replacing someone, because you still have to have someone controlling it. Years ago I was a contractor in the military, and they said, “We need to stop calling them ‘unmanned vehicles’ because there is someone at the other end of it,” working the joystick or whatever. It’s an interesting — we have to pick our words so people understand what we’re talking about. It’s so funny.
AR: That’s part of the issue with the change, is how do you train those people? Because the folks that are doing the work right now, they’re going to be the ones that are running the equipment, that are programming those robots or controlling those robots. It’s going to require a different type of training. That’s one of the challenges, is how do we make that jump from where we are today with the way that we do work and how do we do the work of tomorrow? What’s it going to look like and how do we train for it and prepare for it?
SC: Also, I stopped by the Hanover location — I want to say it was last year, 2019 — when you were doing a training with a scissor lift robotics. That was on the training side of getting people used to — before we put someone in the field on a scissor lift in a plant situation where there’s all these external things going on, let’s train them first on the robot and at least get them up to 60% rather than starting them on the jobsite at zero. That was such an interesting experience. Is it trending toward that as well? It’s not just robots in the field, I guess, is my point.
AR: A lot of it is. It’s not just the robotic side of it, but the virtual reality training side of it. It’s a safer environment. When you’re teaching someone how to work a scissor lift or a high-reach or something like that, it’s usually a one-on-one, an instructor along with the student, in the basket, working the controls. You can give them all the classroom theory that’s out there, but you have to get your hands on the equipment. There’s not enough instructors to go around for the number of people that need to be trained to do it one-on-one.
If you can put somebody in a virtual piece of equipment where they’re not going to hit anything, they’re not going to cause damage to anything, there’s very little maintenance cost, you don’t have to purchase fuel, you don’t have to have a giant yard that you can have 20 people lined up in these things. You can do it in a classroom and they get all the feeling of being on the jobsite using that piece of equipment and operating that piece of equipment. If they mess up, they’re not hurting themselves, damaging any property or anything. It’s a great scenario to be able to put people in that. You have them go through an asynchronous learning process, where they’re going through the lesson, they’re learning from the very basics how to operate everything, and you can have one instructor work with 20 or 30 students at a time, depending on how many of the machines you have. And the instructor can go around and help them as they’re going. But it’s primarily a self-paced learning method.
I took my son and put my son on the equipment after hours, just to see what he thought of it. At the time, he was 13 when we first started doing it. In a couple of hours, he could operate it, not as good as someone on the job, but competently enough that it was really amazing to me that somebody with absolutely no construction experience could get on that and in a couple hours be at a point where — I wouldn’t turn him loose on a high-reach or a scissor lift — but he had enough skill that, with some actual instructor-led coursework and practice, could be a competent lift driver. It’s pretty amazing how far that technology’s come.
SC: I think that also touches on what you were talking about before, the labor gap. We didn’t specifically talk about it today, but we just have to start implementing in the industry — and not just construction either, but across the board where there are labor gaps — different ways of outreach. If you find someone who has an aptitude, someone like you just mentioned, your son, who maybe plays video games in his time off of school, and maybe could be someone who would have an aptitude for that type of work, is there something we need to be doing as an industry from your point of view or from IUPAT’s standpoint of helping those pain points you’d mentioned about the labor gap?
AR: It’s a hard problem to solve, but I think the biggest thing we can do is stop stigmatizing the trades as a bad pathway. I saw it in my own life. My dad always said, “Son, you’re too smart to be a painter. What are you doing? You’re too smart to be a painter.” He didn’t realize all the different types of knowledge and it’s not your IQ that determines whether you’re going to be successful or not. But just that stigma of “Son, you’re too smart to be a painter. You could do something more important or more valuable with your life, or something where you can use your gifts” — that’s the wrong message. Even tradespeople send that message.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the jobsite having a — sitting at lunch, sitting on a bucket, talking to my coworkers, and having them say, “Yeah, I don’t want my kids doing this stuff. I can’t wait, my kids are going to college. I don’t want my son, daughter to be a painter.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that, and it breaks my heart and it irritates me at the same time because what we do is important. It takes still to do it. It takes knowledge to do it. It’s a true profession. It’s a true skilled craft that not everybody can do. I think we scare away the people that do have aptitude for skilled trades by telling them that they have to go to college. By telling them that’s the only path to be successful and do well in your life.
The reality of it is, if you go through a trade school, you can come out with a college degree. We have programs all over the country that are providing degree and credits toward a degree by going through apprenticeship. But you come out with no debt, at least not any student loan debt like you would if you went to college. You come out having made a couple hundred thousand dollars over the course of your apprenticeship, where when you’re in college you don’t necessarily have that opportunity to make that kind of money. You come out with a skilled trade that no one can ever take that away from you. If things ever get bad doing anything else, if you become a glazier or an industrial applicator or an electrician or anything, you become a tradesperson, and you decide to move on at some point to something else, you can always come back to the trades. Your body will remember how to do that. The skills and knowledge will still be there. You can take a couple classes, get back up to speed, and go right back to it like you never left.
So, the most important thing I think we could do — to answer your question, now that I’ve gone round about — the most important thing I think we can do is stop talking bad about the trades, teach people that it is a phenomenal career path, where you can make a lot of money, do really well for yourself, have a really good quality of life, learn a lot along the way, have some fun while you’re doing it.
I’ll give you one quick story. There’s a documentary called “Bridge Brothers.” It was a pilot for a television show that focused on bridge painters in the Philadelphia area and what it was like. It’s kind of like those shows you see on the Discovery Channel or the History Channel. It never got picked up, but a lot of our folks were in that initial pilot. They did a launch party, and we all go to dinner after they did the launch and watched the movie. I’m sitting at the table with a bunch of just regular construction guys, just like I was from the trades, just a bridge painter that wakes up in the morning, goes and does their job every day, painting, blasting, whatever, goes home and barbeques, relaxes, hangs out with the family, does that. They’re all talking about the trucks that they have, the nice cars that they drive, their boats, their lake houses, their Ski-Doos. They’re talking about all these things that they have as a result of being what my dad would classify as a “dumb construction worker.” We gotta get away from that dumb construction worker mentality and show the trades for what they are, as a phenomenal career path for people.
SC: Absolutely. To your point, too, no career path is the end all, be all. We should have options, I think. Some people should go to college. Other people should absolutely consider going to a trade.
AR: I 100% agree. I told my kids, if they want to go to college at some point, they’re welcome to do that. But before they do that, number one they need to mature a little bit. I got out of high school, I wasn’t ready for college. I went, but I wasn’t ready for it. I wish I’d have taken a couple years, did my apprenticeship before I went to school. I told my kids they can go to college if they want to, but they’re going to learn a trade first. They’re going to go through an apprenticeship. They can actually get college credits for the apprenticeship and if they want to become something else down the road, they can. No one will ever be able to take that trade experience away from them.
SC: And to your point, they can fall back on that if they need to. I think that’s a really great point that people probably don’t consider.
AR: Absolutely. You also learn work ethics through that. You learn the value of a dollar. Those are skills that — I never learned those in college. I got myself in a bunch of financial trouble when I was going to college because I was not mature enough and I didn’t understand the value of a dollar. When you work in the trades, you know what it takes to earn a dollar and you’re respectful with it more.
SC: I think you also probably quickly learn things like taxes with your paycheck. All important things that you need to know as an adult when you’re managing your money.
SC: I also think that, at least from my standpoint, there seems to be a misconception of what does it mean to be a painter. I’ve never been a painter, but I’ve talked to hundreds at this point. I can tell you it’s not just putting paint on a ship hull. It’s not just slapping paint on a floor or something like that. We don’t really talk about that either, in the sense of you might have an aptitude — sometimes you’re a chemist in the field. You might have an aptitude for that, mixing part A and part B. Tou might be really interested in the surface prep part of it or the project management. There’s so much more that goes into it than putting the actual paint or coating on the substrate.
AR: Absolutely. That was something I learned early in my career as a painter. When I first started, I knew nothing about it. I wasn’t from the trades. My dad wasn’t a tradesman. So I came in completely blind and had no idea. My conception of what a painter was and what it actually was when I got on the job was two completely different things. I learned along the way that the more you learn, the more knowledge you have, the more skills you develop through your experience, there’s a completely different, very high-tech world of coatings.
We talk about, in the trades, a lot of people say “painter.” That’s what the normal person will talk about, is a painter. When you’re talking about being an industrial applicator, it’s one step farther. You’re talking about putting a coating on within thousandths of an inch tolerance. Like you said, you’re mixing coatings, it’s not just pour these two things together. There’s a specific ratio that you have to use that’s affected by the humidity, but the temperature, by the intended outcome. The surface roughness, the surface profile that the paint actually grabs onto when you’re in the field, if that’s off or if the thickness of your coating is off, you could have a multi-million-dollar coating failure that could cause major corrosion and deterioration of a structure. It takes skill to be able to understand that and do it correctly. People don’t, they really have no idea what it really takes to be an industrial coatings applicator or what commonly people will refer to as a painter. They have no idea.
SC: Hopefully we can help shed a little light on that.
SC: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention also that there are other things going on in the world today, at least. The fires in California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. There’s just a whole lot going on right now that affects everyone’s everyday life, but it’s also affecting the ability to get to jobsites. Those are on hold. The same thing with COVID, like you mentioned, affecting the industry as well.
Obviously, we can’t necessarily predict these types of things, but are there changes moving forward that you see coming down the line? Is there a silver lining or a positive that we could end on today? I feel like there’s just so much going on that’s negative in the world. It’d be nice to end on a positive note.
AR: Here’s what I always tell people. I look at every challenge as an opportunity. I’ll use COVID, since that’s a real recent example. When COVID first hit, we shut down our offices in the middle of March. No one expected it. I was one of the people who said, “Yeah, it’s going to be a virus like the flu. Some people will get sick, no big deal.” Nobody had any idea. It happened, all of a sudden it was, ‘Oh my god, we have to close the office. How are we going to conduct business? How are we going to train people? We have 30 classes on the calendar that we’re going to have to cancel. How are we going to do this?’ It presented an opportunity for us to pivot in the way that we teach people.
We embraced that distance learning model. We started converting a lot of our curriculum to the asynchronous model, while we still have synchronous learning, instructor-led, typical instructor-led classes. But we’re using distance learning technology. We’re using Zoom. We’re using WebEx. We’ve relied heavily on our LMS systems. And it’s changed the way that we train people. Even going forward, we’re working on our schedule for next year, for the classes that — I’m hoping that things open back up after the first of the year and gets back to normal.
While I hate the word “the new normal,” I think the new normal for us is going to be a hybrid training approach that includes some distance learning prior to coming to class, maybe some instructor-led sessions either before or after the in-person session happens, and a shorter in-person window. We now have these tools that we’ve used, were forced to use, but we have these tools to use to change the way that we train and make it more convenient, more cost-effective, and I think more impactful.
No matter what challenge comes before us, I think if we look at it as an opportunity and we use it as a tool to make ourselves better —. There’s a great book, I believe it’s called A Beautiful Constraint. It talks about these types of things specifically where you take the thing that constrains you, you take that challenge or you take that thing that you have to manage around, and you use that as a tool to make your business better, yourself better, the way that you conduct yourself better, the way you accomplish things better.
I love that philosophy. We can’t change the things that happen to us, and it’s almost impossible to predict and prepare for them. But our response to them, that pivot, that adjustment in the way that we do things, if we use it as an opportunity to be more successful, when we come out of that challenge or we come out of that predicament, we’re going to be in a heck of a lot better shape. That’s kind of the way I look at it.
SC: That’s a great outlook. I appreciate it. I think that’s a really great way of looking at it. Thanks for sharing that with m and with our listeners as well. Before we hop off, is there anything else that you wanted to mention that I failed to ask you about?
AR: I don’t think so. I guess if I had to just say one thing, this might sound really hokey —
SC: I like hokey.
AR: Okay. We got the fires. We’ve got COVID. We’ve got all these things. We know what’s going on in the media. We’ve got people — the extremes on both sides of the political issues. All this stuff is going on. If we can just remember to be kind to one another, make our little segment of the world a better place, try to raise the bar in our industry, be generous with one another, be genuine with one another, and do the right thing, I think the average person is a lot closer to the person next to them than the media likes us to believe. While we might have different political views here and there, I think we’re a lot closer to being on the same page than people have us be. If we could be kind to one another, make the world a little bit better place, it’s going to be better for all of us.
SC: I love that. That’s such a great way to end it. Thank you so much for sharing everything. Again, Anton, thanks for joining us. How can people reach you if they’d like to follow up afterwards?
AR: They could go to our website, if you’re interested in training or FTI, you can reach us there at www.ifti.edu. If you’re interested in learning more about the IUPAT, www.iupat.org is the union website. We’re on all the typical social media platforms and everything else. But IFTI and IUPAT, either one of those will get back to us. If anybody wants to talk about paint, I love talking about paint. And I love talking about workforce development too. Give me a call or look me up.
SC: Sweet. Okay, great. Thanks again. I hope that I’ll have a chance to stop by the Hanover location again sometimes soon. I’m hoping maybe in 2021, that’d be great.
AR: We’d love to host you. Have a great day, Stephanie. Thank you.
SC: Thanks. You, too.