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VOL. 42 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 17, 2018

MLK, MTSU grad helps ensure safe environment for construction workers

By Ivan Aronin

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Kaylah White’s  job is to make sure construction sites in Middle Tennessee are as safe as they can be. Her dream job has less to do with buildings going up than buildings coming down.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

If you’ve work on a construction site in Middle Tennessee, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Kaylah White.

White, the executive director of the Middle Tennessee Branch of the Associated General Contractors of Tennessee, will visit or contact any of the organization’s 192 members’ offices, project sites or company events to provide information on worker safety, OSHA and codes compliance, networking or anything else needed to grow the business.

All of that construction industry coaching and cheerleading is produced by a three-person team – White, Associate Director Jennifer Finley and Safety Director Thomas Reed – from an office near One Hundred Oaks Mall.

White has worked for the non-profit trade association for a little more than seven years, taking over as executive director in April of 2015. She attended MLK Magnet High School, where she took engineering classes for four years and then earned a degree in concrete industry management from MTSU in 2010.

With worker safety at the top of her priority list, White relies heavily on Reed, the chapter’s safety director since 2011.

“We are unique in that we have a full-time safety person at our chapter,” White says. “We can help members get ready for OSHA inspections, prepare safety manuals and other safety events. We really want our members to make safety a priority.”

Some of the safety training classes offered are CPR/first aid, excavation training, fall protection, forklift driving and the proper use of scaffolding and aerial work platforms.

The AGC of Tennessee will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2020. The Middle Tennessee chapter (there also are chapters in Memphis, Knoxville and East Tennessee) has 192 members, including 119 in Davidson County, 31 in Williamson County and 14 in Rutherford County.

The Middle Tennessee association’s biggest event is the BBQ in Red Shoes cooking contest to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House at Vanderbilt. This year’s event, the ninth annual, will be held Sept. 21 in the parking lot at Nissan Stadium. There have been 28 five-person teams entered each of the past two years to cook pork or chicken. The event has raised $56,000 for the charity.

Also, AGC members hold an annual workday at the Ronald McDonald House. Last year they built shelves in the facility’s game room.

During an interview with The Nashville Ledger at the AGC state office in Berry Hill recently, White talked about some of the successes, challenges and trends of the construction industry in Middle Tennessee.

Why is this a great time to be a contractor in Nashville?

“All of the cranes will tell you why it is a great time to be a contractor in Nashville. Business is definitely booming right now. We just heard from the code department that non-residential construction is going up in Nashville and some home-building is on a downward trend a far as permits are concerned.

“Talking to my contractors, they have big backlogs so the boom will still be here for quite a while.”

I am sure you have noticed, especially in the downtown and Midtown Nashville areas, it is either all hotels going up or all condos. What kind of impact have you seen that trend have on your members?

“We have some contractors that did a lot of multi-family projects, and hotels are almost the same kind of buildings. You are going to see a lot more hotels here. Nashville has a severe lack of them, and we are trying to catch up to the demand. I think banks have started to kind of limit their lending on condos and things like that so I think we might see a little bit of a slowdown on condos and apartments. But you will definitely see a lot more hotels.”

Has that been surprising that a lot of the hotel and condo projects have been concentrated in the downtown area?

“The Gulch kicked that off years ago. The idea is if you live downtown and your schools and your grocery stores are downtown and you can walk to anything you want to, it reduces the traffic downtown and brings life into your city core. Nashville is going from a very, very small town to a much larger town, so there are growing pains that we are feeling right now.

“I think we expected it. I don’t think we expected it as fast and as furious as it has been. But we (contractors) are enjoying it.”

How will the upcoming change in the governor’s office affect the local construction industry?

“We are very excited about the two candidates. Both are very construction-friendly (Bill Lee’s heating, air conditioning and plumbing company is an AGC member, and Karl Dean pushed for many infrastructure projects as Nashville’s mayor.)

“They have ties with all of the associations related to construction here. Hopefully, you will see an uptick in infrastructure spending because we need it. AGC and the other (construction) associations will definitely be lobbying to keep that spending there.”

How are contractors keeping up with the demand for skilled workers?

“You hit the biggest issue in construction right now, our workforce. Back in 2007, 2008 when we hit that downward trend, everybody left the industry because we did not have enough projects to keep them employed. Now we are on that upward trend and we haven’t brought enough people back.

“The average age of our workers right now is about 54. We have made some headway with schools and craft training and apprenticeship programs. We are really working to get people into those entry-level jobs. Contractors right now are super willing to train you as long as you are willing to come to work and be on time.”

How does the Go Build Tennessee program affect that worker shortage?

“A few years ago, we started a program, Go Build Tennessee, and that is purely marketing, paid for by the construction industry (from surplus funds from the contractor’s license fees paid to the state). What has been really great about that is that it has brought the whole industry together.”

(Four state construction agencies are partners to run the 501c3 organization. Gov. Bill Haslam recently signed legislation to extend the program to 2024. The grassroots program encourages and helps high school and college students to consider careers in construction.)

Do you expect national discussions on immigration to affect the workforce issue?

“AGC is putting on a webinar with a local immigration lawyer on how we can prepare for ICE inspections, things like that. I have heard of an increase in ICE raids around the state. I have not heard of any hitting construction sites, but that does not mean it is not coming. We have been issuing education to our members on how to handle it and how to keep within compliance with the laws.”

Are tariffs a little bit of a dirty word around here?

“Yes, you could say that. That is probably going to be the next thing impacting the industry is the cost of building materials and how that impacts project costs. We are keeping an eye on the tariffs issue.

“We need to make sure that the projects that are already bid aren’t losing money on their projects (because of tariffs). There is steel in equipment, a lot of steel in buildings depending on the type of building. Tariffs haven’t made a huge impact yet, but it is on the radar.

“We are telling our members to watch your prices, make sure you are including them (tariff projections) in your estimates.”

There has been quite a bit of rollbacks on regulatory agency regulations as well. How has that impacted contractors?

“We have a lot of hoops in our industry. So the less hoops we have, the happier we are for sure. We understand the need for regulation and standardization across the industry, but at the same time once you get into construction you realize there are a lot of redundancies and extra hoops that don’t need to be there.”

What are the top two items on your “to-do” list as executive director?

“Our biggest focus is again workforce development, but also diversity efforts. We recognize that our board is a very specific type of person and we are making efforts to track our MWBE [minority and women business enterprises] companies and how we can help them.

“We know they are out there and we really want to support those. And our GCs want to work with minority companies. That is the big thing on my list.”

(There are 11 MWBE members of the Middle Tennessee chapter, eight in Davidson County and one each in Cheatham, Rutherford and Wilson counties. White is a past president of the Nashville chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction].

How has your local education (at MLK Magnet High School and MTSU) played a part in your approach to your current job?

“I am on the council for Cane Ridge High School, one of two high schools in Davidson County that have a construction career path, and that program is booming. The hardest part right now is not so much marketing to kids, it’s marketing to mentors and parents.

“You have this mindset that everyone needs that four-year degree and is going to be a doctor or a lawyer. But at the end of the day, someone has to build the hospitals and the law firms. So we need to show parents and guidance counselors that we have good-paying jobs. It is still a highly skilled job, just with different kinds of skills.”

Do you have a wish list of projects you want to see started?

“I would love to see more craft training in all of the high schools, even if it is introductory classes or summer programs, things like that. Even to show kids how to fix a light switch or basic plumbing, that would be worth it for life skills. You have to find the kids who like to be outside, like to work with their hands and engage them in the construction business.”

Safety is mentioned frequently on the AGC website. Is there a typical safety class or plan?

“We talk to both workers and contractors about safety. They are all going to need their OSHA (forms) for example, and there is a whole list of required safety training rules. We have a facility we can bring people to for training or we can go to the site and do it. We are trying to figure out if we need to expand into Spanish safety training or hire a translator. There is a company in town that does Spanish language safety training so we are not trying to step on their toes.”

Describe a typical day for you.

“It is all over the place. Right now, we are in the process of member visits where we try to visit all of our companies once a year. We do that to gauge what they want and need from the association so we know what direction we need to be going.

“My day can be anything from traveling to visiting high schools to handling HR issues or insurance issues for the association to handling networking events. I also spend a lot of time working with our safety director.”

Tell me about the success of the BBQ in Red Shoes event.

“I refer to that as the networking super bowl for AGC. Our Young Leaders group about nine years ago wanted to do an annual event for a charity. They picked the Ronald McDonald House of Nashville. The first year it poured rain and no one came out, but we still had about 20 teams and raised about $3,000.

“Now all of the general contractors and subcontractors and suppliers show off their barbecue skills and everyone comes out to network with them.

“Last year we had about 700 people come out to the Nissan Stadium parking lots. It is a great place to network and get to know the construction industry.”

Your dream job?

“With all of the new implosions of buildings … that is a cool job,” she explains. “The math that goes behind where to lay the charges and how to make sure [the building] falls in on itself, that is an interesting job.”

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