As the executive director of the Keystone Contractors Association, headquartered in Mechanicsburg, Jon O’Brien is one of the most vocal voices in Pennsylvania construction.
O’Brien has spent decades advocating for the interests of construction companies throughout Pennsylvania. In the following interview, O’Brien reflects on his work in the industry, examines how the COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed how business is done, and offers ways that state lawmakers can help construction workers and companies alike in the years to come.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about the mission of the Keystone Contractors Association.
The KCA is a commercial construction trade association. We were founded in the 1940s to be a collective bargaining agent on behalf of contractors. We’re the management side of the labor-management relationship in construction. Our original purpose was to help construction companies so they don’t have to go out on their own and negotiate union contracts. We get all the management firms together and negotiate together, and we work with the non-mechanical trades – we negotiate with the carpenters, laborers, cement masons, operating engineers and bricklayers and millwrights. That was kind of our sole purpose. And probably for the first 20 years, that’s all we focused on; then, we shifted to include safety services. Today, we do a lot of marketing, promotion and worker recruitment – which is huge today. Those are core services that we offer. We kind of bill ourselves and market ourselves as being an extension of a construction company staff. Whatever they need, we’re here to help.
Tell us about your background.
After high school, I was in the Navy for four years, working in supplies – kind of an accounting role. And then I went to college – to Pitt – where I was a sports journalism major. Right after college, I started working for a painting society; I was a technical writer to certified bridge painters. I started out in the early 2000s. Then I worked for the Master Builders Association – a similar group to the KCA – for almost 15 years, which is when this job opened up. I grew up in Mechanicsburg and after college, I spent 20 years in Pittsburgh – and now I’m back.
From your perspective, what are some of the most pressing issues facing the construction industry?
The most pressing issue is probably the workforce, with retirements and trying to encourage and promote careers in our industry. I can remember having these conversations 20 years ago when I first got into the industry. It seems to be getting worse … something’s got to give.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the industry?
I think on the positive side, we do have cleaner job sites and cleaner professionals and workers on the job sites. People are understanding germs and viruses more – that was never really a big deal a couple of years ago. Other long-lasting effects are contracts. The material prices seem to fluctuate so much, so there’s closer attention being paid to that on the front end. Owners, when they hire contractors, they want to see the numbers that go up: “Lumber has gone up X amount, I want to see this firsthand.” You’re seeing a lot more open books and more transparency – I think that’s great – especially on the front end of projects.
How can state lawmakers help the construction industry?
It seems like every attempt at legislation – it’s more rules. I constantly hear from the legislature, “Well your guys follow the rules, your contractors follow the rules. So we’re just creating more rules in hopes of catching these bad companies, these bad actors.” And I’m like, “Well, why don’t you just enforce what we already have on the books?” It just seems like there’s a never-ending search for more regulations and more rules for construction companies to follow and the bad actors aren’t following them in the first place and they’re already breaking the law by the way they operate. So why are we creating more laws for them to break and more laws for the good characters of KCA to follow?
What can be done to attract more construction and development to the state?
This is more on the real estate side when I talk to developers, but I constantly hear when they work with other states that those states are more welcoming, more owner-friendly. The permitting process is expedited. There was one developer telling me recently that he works in North Carolina – he said the same type of process for permitting to get your permits in North Carolina takes less than a month – and here you’re looking at like six months at least. So it’s little stuff like that – it kind of all adds up and it rubs people the wrong way. If I have options where I can go, why would I choose a place that could be a hassle?