Sheet Metal Workers International Association President Michael Sullivan put on a smile, but knows there is work to do and issues to resolve. “We must have will and determination to resolve issues,” he told his audience.

LAS VEGAS – No one can accuse Mark Breslin of holding back. On more than one occasion during the 2008 Partners in Progress Conference at Caesars Palace, the CEO of the Engineering and Utility Contractors Association (EUCA) let those in attendance have a tongue lashing. And it takes a brave soul to question the unionized sector of the sheet metal industry, both labor and management.

“Leadership has been marginalized,” said Breslin, who at one point said that contractors “suck.” “It’s time to change.”

That was the whole idea behind the two-day event, put together by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association (SMACNA) and the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA). The 570-plus, split down the middle between union labor and union management, were called upon to “speak up, ask tough questions, and seek solutions from everyone.”

Breslin didn’t mince words. He made more than a few in the audience cringe, including SMACNA president Ron Palmerick and SMWIA general president Michael Sullivan.


Breslin, who works with the leadership of nearly every major international building trades union assisting with strategic planning, business development, and workforce development, attitudes, and values, emphasized that unions and contractors are failing in leadership. “This has resulted in an acceptance and pricing of a status quo culture of marginal expectations and failure,” he argued. “We have been absent from the leadership plan.”

At least his fire was not directed solely at the crowd. Breslin said leadership is lacking in government, among religious and spiritual circles, among businesses and corporations, and in sports and sports teams. Concerning the president of the United States, Breslin critiqued, “His chart sucks.”

Mark Breslin, CEO of Engineering and Utility Contractors Association, did not mince words for attendees at the 2008 Partners in Progress Conference. Breslin said there is a national leadership crisis.

Breslin stated there is a national leadership crisis. From an unidentified national study, he pointed out that 55 percent of those surveyed said their respective leader is incompetent, 39 percent said supervisors break their promises, and 27 percent said their bosses talk about them. Turning to his audience, he said union leaders, contractors, and foremen each have shortsighted success measures. He generalized that union leaders rate success by how many years they are re-elected, contractors measure success in how many fires they can put out and how much money they make, while foremen rate success by bringing the job in.

“How are you engaging your workforce here?” he questioned. “Realize that 90 percent of people do not come to union meetings. This means that 90 percent have no information in/from this industry. Ninety percent are apathetic. No information is going to them.”

He called for “alpha leaders,” those who are driven, determined, and focused. This meant being confident vs. intimidating, plus bold and innovative vs. hurtful.

Dr. Awad Hanna, professor and chair of the Engineering and Management program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, reported on the schedule compression effects on labor productivity.

Breslin called for more education for leadership. He noted in the union breakdown, craft workers become contractors while journeymen become foremen. Most, he said, are moved up the rank based on personality, not on skill sets. As a result, most are self-taught in the leadership department, which is not the best route, he said.

“Alpha dogs become motivated to change when they see potential to change,” said Breslin.

Success is when it is about helping others, he stressed. In the end, he said management needs to be proactive. “If you are afraid of the rank and file, you need to get back in the field,” said Breslin.

Robert Wendover, managing director for the Center for Generational Studies, was on hand to provide information regarding recruiting, retaining, and motivating today’s younger workforce.


With the Baby Boomers (those born 1946-64) on the verge of retiring, the man who has been chief executive, negotiator, and contractor advocate for the past 21 years urged the crowd to begin preparing leaders from Generation Xers (those born 1965-81) and Millenials (those born 1982-2000).

He noted that the top three workplace motivators are recognition and praise, participating in the decision-making process, and money.

“We have to get more field leaders as mentors,” he said. “We are going to have to be proactive in management.”

Before closing, he provided needed changes from contractors, union, and foremen. In order to change the current contractor culture, he asked for more leadership, that contractors empower and professionalize foremen, communicate with the field more, and develop leadership classes for apprentices.

Mark Watson (left), of Climate Engineers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Joseph Nigro (right), general secretary-treasurer of Sheet Metal Workers International Association, provided an update regarding the national best practices committee at the 2008 Partners in Progress Conference at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The two-day event was put together by SMACNA and SMWIA.

He asked that unions steer away from politics and more to performance, plus away from measuring success on re-election. He thought there should be organizational accountability, a culture developed on responsibility, and that unions “turn from hands to heart and head.”

He encouraged more programs for foremen and that management pays them more.

He thought foremen should get more leadership education, be provided more recognition and praise, along with more involvement in the decision-making process.

“If we are going to stay alive and compete as a union, we have to change,” he concluded.

Publication date:05/05/2008