Parallels with the Past

Mark L. Johnson / October 2021

The challenge that the wall and ceiling construction faces in this pandemic economy has many parallels with the past. Let’s investigate AWCI’s history and benefit from a little déjà vu.

Big Plans
The first “been there, done that” has to do with AWCI’s conventions. We have had to take time off from holding them face to face, and we had hoped to gather this month in person at AWCI’s Convention & INTEX Expo in New Orleans until Hurricane Ida blew into town and the delta variant of COVID-19 continued to dominate headlines. AWCI’s archives reveal a similar story about convention cancellations, though this story relates to a different disruptive event.
    
In 1941, AWCI—then known as CPIA, or Contracting Plasterers’ International Association—held a convention in Buffalo, N.Y. Soon afterward, war “interrupted the normal procedure,” says the book, “Celebrating 100 Years of Industry Growth with the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry.” The organization went into convention hiatus until 1947. Only 65 members attended the 1947 convention, Nov. 10–12, in Cleveland, but they made big plans to rejuvenate the organization.
    
In 1947, AWCI collected $33,500 in membership dues, and leaders decided to spend $25,000 to hire “an organizer” to grow AWCI’s membership base. It worked. By 1949, AWCI’s membership tally had nearly quadrupled, and the organization’s bank balance, after paying for the $25,000 investment, was $6,160.
    
Today, AWCI has big plans to invest in the industry’s young executives and to build greater participation among AWCI member firms. Shawn Burnum, AWCI president and vice president of operations at Performance Contracting, Inc., in Kansas, says AWCI is developing a forum for emerging leaders and has plans to “drive the tools it has” to help more individuals receive technical training.

Pent-Up Demand
Another parallel with the past is today’s pent-up demand. In a recent AWCI webinar, Kermit Baker, chief economist at the American Institute of Architects, said the AIA Architecture Billings Index, a measure of project volume at architecture firms, reveals plenty of work in the pipeline. One Midwestern subcontractor says he has a two-year backlog of work.
    
Also, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis says real GDP increased at an annual rate of 6.5% in the second quarter of 2021. In the first quarter, real GDP increased 6.3%.
    
The post-World War II economy also saw a boom. “From 1947 through 1953, U.S. gross national product grew a whopping 4.8% annually,” “Celebrating 100 Years” says.
    
Contractors say business is good. There may be some logistics to work out, and budgets and manpower are hard to juggle right now, but many of you speak about the situation with optimism. The extra work required to get materials to job sites is making you better at what you do. And you know how to guide your clients’ expectations.
    
“If you have developed strong relationships with your clients, and you get out in front and say, ‘I anticipate these challenges. I still want to get this job done. I am still your guy or gal here, I have found that you can at least have a conversation,” Burnum says.

A Time of Innovation
A third seen-it-before: The technological innovations of the 1940s.
    
Material innovations after the war, such as gypsum base plasters with lightweight aggregate, were easy to use and gained traction. In the 1940s, contractors adopted “mechanical plastering tools” and “stapling machines” to apply plaster and lath faster than conventional processes of the time, “Celebrating 100 Years” says.
    
Today, we also see construction technology advancing: paperless documentation, internet-connected tools, metal stud installation that uses mixed-reality headsets and a variety of technologies associated with prefabrication. Anything to fast-track construction is worth looking into.
    
So, how can you make history work for your firm? Read “Celebrating 100 Years” and use it to start a dialogue with your team. “Readers will take away lessons on communication, long-term planning, industry collaboration and more,” says the book’s foreword. “As you read, try to draw some lessons to use in your business.”
    
Sure, the pandemic economy is challenging. But history and the economy move in cycles, and we’ve seen many of the same challenges before to know that great things lie ahead.

Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.