Pulling people in

How the Mechanical Contracting Education and Research Foundation is recruiting the industry’s next generation.

The mission of the Mechanical Contracting Education and Research Foundation (MCERF) is to articulate and fund the mechanical contracting industry’s critical human resource and research needs. To achieve this, MCERF, in conjunction with The Mechanical Contractors Association of American (MCAA), cultivates and supports activities that allow professionals in the mechanical contracting industry to succeed in business.

Some of the leaders of MCAA, which was founded in 1889 to service firms in the heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, plumbing, piping, and mechanical markets, wanted to put together a foundation to raise money to fund and support programs. The foundation was officially formed in 1989, and its leadership began calling on local associations across the country as resources. In 2002, the foundation name was changed from the Mechanical Contracting Foundation to its current name.

Today, MCERF’s Board of Trustees is made up of contractors, manufacturers, suppliers, and college faculty members. The foundation is led by its president Mark Rogers, COO of West Chester Mechanical Contractors, Inc., and executive director, Dennis Langley, who is also an MCAA staff member.

The foundation is supported by donations from a variety of supporters including individual contractors, contracting businesses, and manufacturers. Historically, the foundation focused its funding on the development and distribution of educational materials, such as trend reporting publications, print booklets, and e-books for products and methods. Over the last two years, however, MCERF shifted its fundraising focus from servicing existing industry professionals to the recruitment and retention of students and young adults enrolled in academic programs in engineering and construction management.

According to Langley, “In October of 2014, at a major summit that MCERF funded in conjunction with MCAA in New York, we assembled more than 30 of the finest faculty members in the construction management and engineering areas and asked them how we can do a better job of winning the hearts and minds of their brightest talent. The answer was unanimous, ‘Get them to come work with you and experience the industry through internships.’”

Over the past decade, MCERF and MCAA have supported 50 student chapters at colleges and universities ranging from Purdue University to Milwaukee School of Engineering. Each student chapter is set up with a faculty advisor, usually a professor or instructor at the school, who leads the group. Annually, chapters are invited to a two-day summit that exposes students to the mechanical construction, plumbing, and service industries. Students exchange ideas on chapter development and learn about career opportunities within the mechanical construction industry as well as how to find them. MCAA members are encouraged to attend to evaluate future potential professionals for full-time positions.

At the summit, a mini-competition using a mock project is conducted. The competition gives students a chance to compete, and also allows them to form and work on ad hoc project teams, which is something that happens frequently in the “real world” of construction. It also prepares them for the MCAA “Final Four” Student Chapter Competition that is held each year at the association’s annual convention.

Introducing four finalist projects to assembled students and faculty is the concluding activity of the convention competition. For the competition, a complex, sophisticated request for proposal (RFP) is presented to each of MCAA’s student chapters and each chapter that wishes to take up the challenge must respond by an established deadline. Once all submissions are in, MCAA contractor judges get together at the association’s headquarters, in Rockville, Md., to meticulously go through and score each one. The four highest scoring teams go head to head at the MCAA convention on the “big stage,” complete with lights, monitors, timers, microphones and video recording.

The most recent summit took place October 1-3, in Cleveland, Ohio. The “Final Four” will compete and receive recognition at an awards breakfast during the MCAA Convention in March 2016.

While the summit and student competition have helped MCERF educate students about the mechanical contracting industry and create buzz on school campuses, it has not completely sold young people on joining the industry.

“We had to get them in to our industry because they were still going to work in other areas of construction, engineering and with general contractors,” Rogers explained. “We wanted them with our people.”

To help with this, MCERF developed a new initiative in 2015 called, “The Year of The Intern.” With the initiative, MCAA members were offered $1,500 grants for each intern that they brought on with their company. John Gentille, executive vice president and CEO of MCAA, helped Rogers develop and execute the idea. In 2015, more than 300 grants were disbursed.

“John has been on the job for close to 20 years, and has been a big part of the success of the MCERF and MCAA,” Rogers said. “Yet, in the past we really never jumped at the opportunity of funding interns. We had $1,200 intern grants that were limited in that each company could only get one grant. On a yearly basis, we were generally giving out 60 or 70. So, with athis year’s numbers, I know this initiative is a big step in the right direction.”

The idea for “The Year of The Intern” was birthed partially out the foundation’s desire to get youth into mechanical contracting, but also to address a popular industry issue: the age gap.

“Our industry’s workforce is aging, from the field laborer to the people in the offices. We have to start to find replacements, and train people like me,” Rogers said.

Thus far, the foundation has found success with the initiative. Currently, MCERF is in the process of reviewing survey responses from both interns and contractors who participated in the initiative. An example of some of the feedback back they have collected from interns includes:

  • 84 percent were clear on objectives defined when they began working at their internship.
  • 77 percent are very likely to seek a career with a mechanical contractor.
  • 83 percent said their internship experience with the MCAA member employer was very positive and educational about the industry.
  • 52 percent were offered another internship by the employer.
  • 34 percent were offered full-time employment.

In December, Rogers will meet with the foundation’s board to see if “The Year of The Intern” initiative will continue in 2016. Rogers said he is optimistic that, with the correct funding, it will. The initiative was able to be carried out this year due to a $1 million donation that MCAA awarded to MCERF in 2013. Rogers hopes that contractors and manufacturers who participated in this year’s initiative will assist in spreading the word about the value of the work that was done. There is evidence that this is already taking place, as Rogers said he has seen more contributions this year from first-time supporters than in years past.

“It tells me were doing something right here,” Rogers commented. “We are going to remind people every time that we get the chance that this is a great opportunity to find some new people to work with their offices and in their organizations.”

Rogers’ passion for the industry came through in his discussion of fundraising. He explained that seeing the success of a program for youth softened his heart even more for an industry he has been involved with since he was young.

“I am a union steam fitter by trade and went through an apprenticeship program in Philadelphia. When I was 30 years old, I took the $2,000 I had to my name and bought two 6-foot folding tables, a computer, and a fax machine and started West Chester Mechanical Contractors out of the basement of my house,” Rogers explained. “In a 15-year period, from 1996 to 2011, I went from field foreman, to owner of a company, to the national president of MCAA.”

Like many industry veterans, Rogers is anxious yet optimistic about the potential that the industry’s future holds.

“I feel honored to be part of this foundation and association. It’s made me a better person, businessman, boss, coworker, husband and father. When you’re around good people who do what you do and volunteer their time to make our industry better for us as contractors, manufacturers, and now for these students it’s a win-win-win,” Rogers said. “I want to help shape where we’re going to go. But also, it’s about helping me learn new things. I’m really excited about what the next 20 years or so are going to be.” 

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