Eli Howard, technical director with the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, told attendees of the Detroit Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference that HVAC and sheet metal are very sustainable industries.

DETROIT - Battered by the tough Michigan economy of the last five years, Sheet Metal Workers union Local 80 has suffered with 30 percent-plus unemployment among members.

Mark Saba, business manager and secretary for the Southfield, Mich.-based union, said he knows the old ways of construction won’t solve that problem.

“I realize the work we have done in the past will not sustain the industry going forward,” Saba said.

But sustainable construction, along with growing the union’s membership, hopefully will, he said.

That was the message Saba brought to the Good Jobs, Green Jobs regional conference, which took place May 10-11 in Detroit. One of four such meetings held across the country, organizers the BlueGreen Alliance used the event to showcase the common goals of unions and environmental groups to create good-paying jobs in the new, sustainable economy.

Saba was a panelist on “The Greening of HVAC Practices: Redefining Industry Strategies and Partnerships.” The session also included Anthony Asher, executive director of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association’s Detroit chapter; Robert Donaldson, business manager with Sheet Metal Workers Local 292; SMACNA technical services director Eli Howard; and architect Celeste Novak.

Anthony Asher, executive director of SMACNA Detroit, said profits and green building are not incompatible.

Educating attendees

For an audience that may not have been familiar with SMACNA or HVAC, panelists attempted to educate them on the services the industry and union-affiliated association had to offer.

“Years ago, people thought that green was just the fad of the week, the fad of the month,” Howard told the audience. “But it’s here. It’s here to stay.”

Howard explained that SMACNA writes construction standards that are often incorporated into building codes throughout the country on issues such as indoor air quality and building information modeling.

Despite the economy, now is an exciting time in construction, he said.

“There are things coming in the code arena that are cutting edge,” he said, pointing to technologies such as variable-air volume systems and chilled beam HVAC. “None of these things are going to be a panacea, but they are another tool in the (building) owner’s toolbox.”

Architect Novak said in a traditionally blue-collar city like Detroit, the number of so-called green-collar jobs is growing.

“We’re doing very well in adapting green,” she said, adding that Detroit was a top city in the number of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings.

“It’s an exciting time to be here,” Novak said. “There are jobs. I look everywhere in this city and all I see is work to be done.”

Mark Saba, business manager and secretary for Sheet Metal Workers union Local 80, said he hopes sustainable construction will mean more jobs for his members.

Sustainable equals profits

Asher, of SMACNA Detroit, agreed, adding that green construction and profitability are not separate items.

“Profit is not a dirty word - it’s a necessity,” Asher said. “The aspect of energy savings on utilities is paramount.”

And SMACNA, along with the Sheet Metal Workers, realize it, he said.

“The union is changing. The whole system is changing,” Asher said. “It really is some great, exciting times.”

And officials at Local 80 have gotten that message as well, Saba told the audience. The union of today is not like it was even a few years ago.

“This is an exciting time for us,” he said. “We both see that we have to change. What sustained business last year will not sustain it this year.”

Officials with the union have been reaching out to young people interested in the environment and energy efficiency, encouraging them to consider working in the HVAC and sheet metal industry.

“Good Jobs, Green Jobs brings a new light to what we can do as far as being energy efficient,” Saba said. “Looking outside the box - that’s what this Good Jobs, Green Jobs is going to do.”

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.