Ontario’s mechanical contractors seek opportunities in challenging economic environment

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                MCAO focuses on key issues including safety, prompt payment legislation, union local consolidation and joint industry standards

    Ontario Construction Report staff writer

    Ontario’s mechanical contractors have noticed a business slump as private sector funding has failed to compensate for the decline in the government-induced recession-fighting infrastructure funding surge.

    “We’re seeing variations of the same thing across the province,” said Steve Coleman, the Mechanical Contractors Association of Ontario’s (MCAO) executive director. “Bigger companies are taking on smaller jobs just to stay working, smaller companies are being bought up. Because the private projects aren’t there a lot of companies are depending on Infrastructure Ontario (IO) waiting for new projects to come through.”

    Coleman says the MCAO is working closely with IO to ensure local companies are not cut out through excessive project bundling.  He said the government organization seems to be listening by helping educate smaller companies on how to get and stay involved.  IO realizes the smaller companies of today are the bigger companies of tomorrow so ways must be found to support them, Coleman said.

    Rico Leone, president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of Niagara, agrees with the assessment, saying in the Niagara region, work volumes are down about 40 per cent from four years ago.

    As well, Leone says projects are compressed within increasingly tight schedules. “You have these tight timelines that have to be met regardless of issues that come up and have to be dealt with,” he said. “Contractors have to bring on bigger crews to get the work done in the same amount of time after they’ve been delayed.”

    Leone says they get the work done but end up being less efficient.  Contractors are unable to pick up other projects because of the stacking of trades waiting to get onto a site and the labor crunch these timelines create.

    The Ontario College of Trades (OCOT) is creating other challenges. Coleman says while MCAO supports the OCOT in theory, there is concern that enforcing the letter of the law too stringently will chase business away from the province.

    “There is a real concern over alienating owner clients on job sites where grey areas may exist but not be recognized,” he said. “We’re working with a coalition of compulsory trades to try to mitigate this potential loss.”

    Coleman says, with David Tsubouchi stepping in as new CEO, there is hope he will apply a refreshed outlook to the college and its approach.

    Another issue, which will have a significant impact on union contractors, is the consolidation of 13 plumbers union locals down to six or seven. “The big question, and biggest challenge, will be how to accommodate regional issues and deal with existing arrangements.”

    Coleman said the MCAO is working with the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting and Sprinkler Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada (UA) ensure a smooth transition. He says the end result should be progressive and facilitate better working conditions.

    Safety continues to be a primary industry focus.  The MCAO supports the Certificate of Recognition (CoR) as a safety credential, but he says the association doesn’t wish to see it as a prerequisite for tenders.

    Leone agrees, saying mandatory safety certification should not be a condition for public work. “We have to find ways to streamline and reinforce the message, and bring some of the accountability for safety back to the worker.”

    Coleman says MCAO has also worked as part of the NTCCC (National Trade Contractors Coalition of Canada) on prompt payment legislation, which he says the group hopes to see passed into law by the spring. “This is the biggest thing in 25 years as far as contracts go. It is right for the industry and a major value to everyone right down the line.”

    Another positive, according to Coleman, is the WSIB Safety Group Program. “We are one of the first in Ontario to have this,” he said. “Besides the peer exchange it provides, its rebate program has created $840,000 in savings which will be shared among the companies participating due to our 5.4 (out of 6) rating.”

    Meanwhile, in November the MCAO met with other interested parties to explore re-establishing the Ontario Joint Standards Practice Committee, which has provided a forum for electrical, mechanical, general and steel contractors, plus architects, engineers and specifications writers, to achieve equitable solutions to problems facing various industry segments. Coleman says this is an area there has been a void and one that needs attention as the industry looks to move forward.

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