Conversations about the skilled labor shortage have become commonplace. And though high profile champions, like Mike Rowe, have given new visibility and importance to the looming challenge that threatens all trade professions nationwide, articles typically bemoan the lack of young people entering the trades while offering few solutions.
The need for qualified technicians isn’t the only concern facing the trades, though. Others issues – such as quality of work and the time in which it’s completed – are as much a symptom of the first problem as they are challenges in their own right.
Many proactive, growing companies have squared off with the workforce shortage out of necessity, dealing it blows where they can. This often comes in the form of a bolstered recruiting game, or a train-your-own technician approach.
Local advocacy in high schools helps, too, though positive results come gradually as part of a longer-term effort. And, some companies implement systems and QC measures that help, to a degree at least.
If Baker Group, in Des Moines, IA, wasn’t already a mechanical force to be reckoned with over the past half century, this changed dramatically in early 2017.
Managers within the 650-person design-build firm, already intimately familiar with the advantages of prefabricating plumbing and mechanical systems offsite, made a bold move to expand their manufacturing space by nearly 150 percent. This, they say, has helped to solve several high-level concerns.
Manpower, quality, timeline
The decision to expand was made in order to produce higher quality products, in less time, without creating an unrealistic need for additional skilled manpower.
The firm’s new, 144,000 square-foot facility contains offices as well as manufacturing space, and is called Baker Group Advanced Manufacturing. As many as 75 craftsman can work during a single shift.
“We’ve done prefabrication work since the 1960s,” said Rob Cross, operations manager at Baker Group. “We added a large shop in 1998, and since then, we’ve steadily gained momentum. Our growth necessitated this new expansion last year.”
“The dynamic of the entire construction industry today is built on quality and speed,” says Tom Wengert, VP of Baker Group’s sheet metal business unit. “With this facility, we can prefab systems in a controlled environment, which improves quality while reducing labor costs.
“Additional benefits include increased safety, less congestion on construction sites, less jobsite trash and better scrap material recycling,” added Wengert.
While speed and quality are two major advantages to having a large manufacturing space at your disposal, the efficiency of off-site manufacturing means that fewer employees are needed to accomplish the same task.
Much of the in-shop sequencing implemented by Baker Group at the new facility was adapted from the automotive industry. For example, the flow of materials comes in west side of the shop and leave on the east side.
More than sheet metal
Completed in March of 2017, Baker Group Advanced Manufacturing includes 80,000 square-feet of fabrication space with almost 9,000 of that dedicated to multi-trade prefabrication alone.
The multi-trade space is located centrally among the sheet metal, piping and electrical shops. Here, trades work collaboratively in a weather-controlled environment to build to specifications and then ship to the job site.
The space features a 10-ton crane, allowing workers to construct large assemblies. By reducing on-jobsite time, this moves the entire construction timeline forward. The approach increases value to clients, and more than doubles Baker Group’s production capacity.
It’s in this centrally-located, multi-trade space that the various trades come together to assemble systems, sometimes even full mechanical penthouses. Welders work on framing and dunnage while pipefitters connect boilers, chillers, pumps and other equipment. Electricians wire the components and control technicians prepare everything to plug into a BAS.
“A good example of how we build to exact specifications in the shop can be seen in fabrication of gang restroom assemblies,” said Cross. “We can complete an eight-stall bathroom assembly in a little over a day, where it would take nearly a week onsite.”
Welders create an angle-iron framework, perfectly centering all the Watts closet carriers. Once assembled, the system is piped and hydro-tested. Waste water is also tested before the assembly is broken into several pieces for deliver to the job.
Baker Group has used the Watts back-to-back wall mounted, floor mounted and single closet carrier configurations for a wide variety of projects.
“We’ve standardized on the Watts carriers because the fab crews prefer them and they can be rapidly assembled,” said Cross. The Watts “industry standard closet carriers” come out of the box pre-assembled. The carriers feature a patented compression sealed nipple, which provides fast installation without the need for additional sealants. Adjustment is much easier than when threaded nipples are used.
“We never have any trouble with the closet carriers once they’re in the field, and the support we get from Jeff Howe, at Mack McClain & Associates – our manufacturer’s rep agency – is fantastic,” he continued
Cross has been with Baker Group for 23 years, and the relationship with rep firm Mack McClain goes back as long as he can remember. The firm supplies most of Baker Group’s plumbing components, including toilets, eyewash stations, backflow assemblies, drains and water heaters.
Still adding capabilities
Toilet carriers aren’t the only plumbing systems that Baker Group prefabricates though. Like their ability to assemble boiler and chiller systems offsite, mechanics also build water service entrances, backflow assemblies, pump skids, pressure reducing stations and water purification systems. Once assembled, these items are broken down only as far as needed to be palletized, and the kits shipped to the jobsite.
“Every year we add something new to what we fabricate here on site,” Cross says, adding that Baker Group’s mechanical capabilities now include fabrication of ASME-rated vessels and components. “We’re equipped with the skills, knowledge, equipment and space to do this intricate and very strict code welding work.”
“Give us your biggest problem; the answer lies within the body of knowledge our people possess. We’ll find the solution,” he continued.
Filling the new shop
While Baker Group Advanced Manufacturing allows the company to provide more capacity with reduced manpower, the need for new hires to fill the shop still requires ongoing effort.
“We’re a big local advocate for the trades,” said Cross. “We visit high schools and technical schools, invite people to take tours or do job shadowing programs. But we still can’t hire fast enough to fill the need.”
Baker Group is one of the largest, most capable design-build contractors in the Midwest, and they take that title seriously.
The content available on their website and YouTube channel speaks not only to potential clients, but also potential employees.
If the company’s dedication to recruiting parallels their insistence on delivering the best solution on time and on budget, staffing the new shop won’t be an unsurmountable task.
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