Strength in Unity
Chicagoland AGC focuses on cooperative industry initiatives to benefit Chicago’s citizens and workforce
There is strength in numbers.
Many people have heard this age-old cliché, which suggests there is greater power or security when many individuals or organizations join a single cause. One could also interpret this adage to mean there is strength in unity—a compelling prospect for those working in the sometimes disjointed and siloed world of construction.
Trade associations, for example, strive to recruit the industry’s innovators, trailblazers and up-and-coming talent to advance their respective agendas—a practice that can cause further fragmentation through inadvertent competition. But what if there is a more harmonious way to achieve everyone’s goals, or better yet, exceed them?
This ideal is what instigated a recent merger between two Illinois-based chapters of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). The leaders of these like-minded groups desired to have a broader impact in the Midwest construction market. So, in January 2018, the Chicago-based Builders Association and the Fox Valley AGC joined together to form Chicagoland AGC—a collective of about 210 member companies representing Greater Chicago, the third-largest metropolitan area in the nation.
“By partnering together, we have expanded our geographic jurisdiction and are now the largest general contractor association in the Chicagoland area,” says Stacey Kelly, Programs and Finance Manager, Chicagoland AGC. “In addition to giving the area’s contractors a stronger voice, this alliance creates an equitable balance for our members by enabling us to work more cost-effectively and provide more services and programs without redundancy.”
Now, with even greater resources at its disposal, this progressive AGC chapter is working to strengthen the local commercial construction market through an enhanced focus on advocacy, education, networking and workforce initiatives. The ultimate goal: to make the regional construction environment more cooperative and achieve even greater success in showcasing the construction industry’s impact on an area’s economy and workforce.
Cultivating Future Leaders
The core mission of Chicagoland AGC is to represent the interests of the construction industry as well as enhance labor relations, safety programs, business opportunities and innovative construction practices. Among the host of programs created to achieve these objectives, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) has become a valued tool to build interpersonal relationships and help cultivate the next generation of construction leaders.
“Our aim is to help young people become more active and involved with others in the industry,” says Chicagoland AGC CLC Co-Chair Nora Degnan, who also serves on the national CLC steering committee for AGC. “This is a collaborative learning and networking environment—it’s not a competitive atmosphere. We’re really focused on creating a community of professionals who will be more confident and better able to step into leadership roles as older generations enter retirement.”
The Chicagoland AGC CLC has nearly 400 young professionals on its roster—mostly those in early-to-midlevel career positions such as project managers, project engineers, superintendents, estimators and office personnel. These individuals meet throughout the year to network and exchange their ideas about advancing the industry, and provides opportunities for them to receive mentorship from seasoned construction business experts.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to bridge the gap between young professionals and industry veterans when you get engaged in groups like this,” says Degnan, who has made it a priority throughout her career to be an active leader in various trade associations. “For me personally, the initial draw to the CLC was to get face time with people and understand what makes them tick. It’s really beneficial to learn from and forge relationships with your peers, as well as the higher ups in this industry.”
Community & Industry Leadership
The CLC is also a platform for philanthropy. “Our CLC members really appreciate community service, and we’re always looking for opportunities to promote various charities or get involved in philanthropic endeavors,” Kelly says. Last April, for instance, they volunteered their time to fix up a local residence in support of Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago, an organization dedicated to improving the homes and neighborhoods of disadvantaged residents.
In addition to charitable efforts, demonstrating industry leadership on a national scale is important to members of Chicagoland AGC. Next October, the chapter will have the privilege to co-host the annual CLC Leadership Development Conference.
“Being a newer CLC chapter, we are ecstatic and humbled to have been awarded this responsibility. It provides an incredible opportunity to showcase all of the exciting projects taking place in the Chicago area,” Kelly says.
Uniting to Solve Challenges
Chicagoland AGC has another standout initiative that bolsters industrywide collaboration: an industry roundtable comprising Chicago-area contractors, union representatives and developers. The group is called HIRE360—an acronym that stands for hire, invest, reach and empower—whose purpose is to devise comprehensive solutions to expand employment and business opportunities.
“This group represents the ultimate industry collaboration,” says Mike Meagher, current Vice President of Chicagoland AGC and incoming board President for 2020-2021. “We’re facilitating unprecedented meetings between these parties to tackle national obstacles in areas such as workforce development, small business development and staffing shortages.”
HIRE360 also focuses on a variety of regional construction challenges. “On a local scale, one of the main issues we’re addressing is Chicago’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance, which is becoming a big barrier to getting projects built,” Meagher says. According to the city’s website, this ordinance requires certain residential developments that receive city financial assistance or involve city-owned land to provide a percentage of units at affordable prices. He adds, “Another local issue involves recent changes to the Cook County real estate tax assessment method. This has resulted in radical property tax increases, which poses another major challenge to getting anything new built.”
Meagher explains these types of hurdles don’t just affect developers. “If these issues aren’t resolved, then nothing is getting built, which means none of the union tradespersons are getting employed. So that’s why, together, our group can be very effective,” he says.
A Community-Oriented Vision
To expand local employment opportunities, HIRE360 and its industry partners are renovating a warehouse near the south side of Chicago to facilitate a new workforce development program. Located at the intersection of W. 26th Street and S. State Street, this more than 50,000-square-foot building will be used for recruiting and training purposes, chiefly targeting area youth and underrepresented populations. The program will also provide job placement assistance and other resources to help individuals land sustainable, long-term careers.
“The primary purpose of this location is to develop a qualified local workforce for our region’s construction projects. We are employing paid staff to provide education about each of the various trades (with support from our union friends) and to help individuals acquire essential skills in math and other areas,” Meagher says. He notes this program is geared toward individuals between 18 and 40, with the vast majority likely coming from minority neighborhoods in Chicago.
Leaders of the Chicagoland AGC chapter understand that people are sometimes not cut out to work in construction, but may not figure this out until they are given an opportunity to “test the waters.” Meagher adds, “If we discover someone is not a fit for the trades, we will provide guidance on other avenues for employment in fields such as manufacturing, hospitality and janitorial.”
The target date for completing the facility renovation is summer/fall 2020, at a projected cost of $6 million. Once the workforce development training center is up and running, it will require around $7 million annually to remain operational. Chicagoland AGC welcomes any financial or material donations (which are tax-deductible) to help build and sustain this community-oriented program.
Paving a Path to the Future
Local business development is another crucial focus for HIRE360. In addition to making financial investments in the region’s small, disadvantaged, woman, minority or veteran-owned companies, HIRE360 members provide mentorship to business owners and their staffs to uplift and empower them. Why? Because it’s a socially responsible way to transform communities that are rich in talent but lacking in resources or opportunity, says Meagher.
One of the biggest struggles for many business owners, he adds, is obtaining low-interest rate loans. “The hardest part of running any business, especially in construction, is capital,” he explains. “So, our industry is coming together through HIRE360 to support local businesses through various initiatives. For instance, earlier this year we were involved in a fundraiser called ‘Paving a Path to the Future’ to help us achieve our goal in raising over $1 million for minority small businesses. All ticket sales and sponsorship dollars were used to collateralize business loans and provide these businesses with much-needed support.”
The industry leaders at HIRE360 continue to explore new ways to build up the community. Currently, there is talk of possibly opening a charter high school to provide a pipeline of talent into trade and apprentice programs. “We have a team of contractor and union representatives dedicated to researching and planning out this idea more fully, as it involves finding a facility, developing a curriculum, etc. to make it a viable educational program,” Meagher says.
Ultimately, all programs delivered through Chicagoland AGC are focused on increasing opportunities for construction professionals as well as the community at large. For this very reason, the association urges more individuals and their employers to get involved in the chapter’s networking and mentorship activities, continuing education and workforce development programs, and big-picture initiatives.
For Degnan and other rising talents in the construction industry, being active in trade associations is often intrinsically rewarding. “Being involved in professional organizations makes you a more well-rounded employee. Not only are you benefiting from a work-learning experience, you’re also making friends as you get to know your industry colleagues. And, if you have the opportunity to join a steering committee, it’s really worth the time investment. Here at Chicagoland AGC, the staff is incredibly supportive in helping members accomplish their professional goals,” she says.