Using skilled union labor, MKE Iron Erectors Inc. delivers exceptional work
MKE is the U.S. airport code for Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, located south of downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. MKE is also the name of nearby MKE Iron Erectors Inc. (MKE) a structural steel and concrete reinforcing erecting company in Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb. Serving customers in the commercial, utility and transportation infrastructure markets, the company constructs structures like buildings, wastewater treatment facilities and bridges—using union labor.
Union members deliver exceptional work, says Barbara Sheedy, company President and Owner. The firm, launched in 2019, may be relatively new, but it is propelled by the diverse expertise of Sheedy and her team and union members employed for projects—whether those jobs involve building foundations, installing rebar, erecting lift bridges or fabricating concrete tanks.
“We’re affiliated with four ironworker unions,” says Sheedy, which ensures MKE always has enough labor for its variety of projects. “In Iron Workers Local 8 of Milwaukee, our home local, there are around 1,500 members we can employ. But Southeast Wisconsin is booming with construction, and there are only a finite number of workers to go around. We need to belong to more than one to serve our market.”
This labor shortage, Sheedy says, sets up union ironworkers as highly valued assets in the field. “Some retirees are called back for supervisory roles because the demand is so great,” Sheedy notes. “We need their intellect. They know the intricate details of how to make a job go well.”
An older union ironworker, then, is like a secret weapon.
Seasoned veterans strengthen the workforce, she notes. They pass their wisdom down to younger colleagues—and Sheedy has a heart for those young ones.
“They can drive around the city, see a project and say, ‘I did that,’ ” she says. “They have ownership in their craft.” This resonates with Sheedy’s desire to help others find their sense of purpose and attain their goals.
“Just like in parenting, you see potential in individuals and hope they have enough confidence to use their God-given talent to their best ability. Are we building stuff? Yeah. But the biggest thing is people, helping them achieve their personal and financial aspirations.”
A Winning Team
Taking advantage of skilled union labor also allows MKE the flexibility of a workforce without having to keep staff on its payroll year-round. If that sounds like the logic of a practical, financial professional, it’s because Sheedy spent decades working in finance, accounting and labor and field operations for other construction companies before starting her own firm.
But she hasn’t just relied on that experience. Sheedy took her business knowledge a step further, earning her MBA at age 50—while working full time and mothering two sons.
“Being in this industry, I felt I needed more alphabet soup behind my name to be considered equal,” she says. Although iron and steel is still a highly male-dominated industry, she’s gradually starting to see more female project engineers on work sites.
When Sheedy found an opportunity to buy the assets of a failing company, she purchased its receivables as part of the deal, and from there, MKE was born.
Just as rebar shores up concrete, her company is supported by its leadership team: Rich Zimmerman, Operations and Estimating Manager; Eric Howard, Structural and Rebar Field Operations Manager; and Terrell Brumfield, Accounting Manager. “Between the four of us, we have a good team with no gaps in knowledge or skills,” Sheedy says. “There is a base there, a base of trust and respect. I have never before worked with this caliber and quality.”
As challenges of COVID-19 crept into Southeastern Wisconsin, Sheedy again demonstrated her business acumen through diversification, expanding the team with James Erb, Structural Steel and Miscellaneous Metals Estimator. MKE has 35 employees in the field and seven in the office. Sheedy’s son, Christian Sheedy, also works for the company, as a Safety Intern.
In addition to taking pride in her workforce, management and support team, Sheedy is honored to be a member of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), the largest U.S. certification organization for women-owned businesses.
A High-Rise Home Run
The high-rise Huron Building is one of MKE’s most significant projects to date.
Home to the Husch Blackwell law offices and other tenants, the $65 million project is 11 stories high, a fixture on the downtown Milwaukee skyline. Collaborating with Stevens Construction Corp., MKE installed reinforced steel and post tensioning—a process where the steel is tensioned after the concrete is put into place. Sheedy’s team also installed metal stairs and railings, metal supports for masonry and curtain wall systems on outer, non-structural walls.
“Stevens is an open shop contractor. We are higher in cost, but because we have the trained labor of the union, Stevens thought we were the best candidate to get the job done,” Sheedy says.
The job was a $1.4 million contract for MKE. The rewards of the Huron Building’s completion were all the sweeter as the project was completed two months ahead of schedule.
Another significant project for MKE was the reconstruction of Milwaukee’s Michigan Street Bridge, on which it collaborated with partners Zenith Tech and the City of Milwaukee. Built in 1978, the bridge, which spans the Milwaukee River, underwent demolition in the summer of 2019, with reconstruction completed in July of 2020. MKE installed new walkway decks and railings, along with new concrete approach slabs and lift machinery to complete the final touches.
Navigating Industry Peaks and Valleys
The company’s iron, metal fabrication and concrete work has vast applications, from bridge machinery to pump-station platforms to road construction. MKE does not only install but also repairs many of these same elements, Sheedy says.
MKE also offers related services, such as pre-planning and budget estimating; technical erection planning; and installation safety planning designed to decrease liability risk.
With the biggest challenge of managing contract work being steady cash flow, this kind of diversification of services helps, says Sheedy. Without it, workflow peaks and valleys could trigger layoffs, a fate she fights hard to keep at bay.
Mental and Physical Fitness
Sheedy maintains a keen interest in keeping employees financially stable, physically safe and mentally healthy as well.
In an industry where physical safety is often more noticeably front and center, Sheedy puts emphasis on mental health wherever possible as well.
Maintaining mental health is an ongoing challenge in the construction industry. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the 2016 suicide rate for men in construction-related occupations was almost twice that of men (16-64 years old) working in other industries, across 32 states. Long work hours, along with frequent relocations, can add to stress and feelings of isolation—factors that can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts.
MKE is a supporter of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which advocates for positive work environments, open conversations around mental health issues and making help available through vetted resources.
It’s a cause that hits home for Sheedy; she is glad to be a listener when needed.
“You have hopes and dreams for these young kids,” she says, whether they are her employees, apprentices, electrical contractors, plumbers or other tradespeople she encounters on projects. “When things start to get to be too much, we are not doing our job caring for these young workers. One of the benefits of being a female is this empathy. It’s a mom thing. I can read the body language and say, ‘Are you doing OK?’ They are better at opening up if they are asked.”