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Civil Engineering & Infrastructure

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Design Build | CM | GC

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Green Building

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Positive News

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Specialty Contracting


Keeping it Real

The evolution of AGC (Associated General Contractors of America) chapters was so often tied to the history of their local communities. To a greater or lesser extent, the eighty-nine chapters reflect the personalities of those communities which gave rise to them – whilst walking in step with the national organization. It is little wonder, therefore, that the Austin Chapter –seventy-six years in existence—makes for such an interesting case study. It is forward-thinking, open and inclusive with a finger on the pulse of both local and overarching, national trends. It’s no surprise either, to find these same traits embodied in President and CEO, Phil Thoden – a twenty-four-year AGC veteran who takes enormous pride in representing local members. “I really enjoy what I do, and I love the community of contractors I get to work with,” Thoden says. “At the end of the day, contractors do something that is real and lasting. They build our quality of life. That is sometimes underappreciated. I enjoy working with those people who make our community’s dreams a reality.”

With experience as an AGC lobbyist – as part of their Government Affairs Team – in Washington DC prior to arriving in the central Texas city, Thoden has a unique perspective on how the AGC works nationally and locally. Additionally, he is very clear on the role of his chapter and of the national organization and how the work all relates to members on the ground, especially here in Austin. In general, Thoden likens the AGC role to that of insurance or computer virus protection. “You pay into the organization and maybe you forget about us. But every once-in-a-while, we kind of raise our hand, just like in the case of the computer virus software, and say: ‘Hey, there’s a threat out there but you don’t have to worry about it because we are worrying about it for you.’ It’s the mindset I like to have. Our contractors are busy building projects and don’t have time to look at some of those coming threats.”

No prizes for guessing that the biggest such threat in recent history was COVID-19. Thoden sums it up as “a situation where, when you need an organization to serve as the voice of your industry, it’s too late to go out and build one.” In addition to this, he recalls that Austin was the only major town in Texas where discussions took place regarding the types of construction projects that could remain open. “One thing that contractors require is clarity. We were in a situation for a week or so when people didn’t know what they could or couldn’t do. That was a time when I was probably most proud in regard to being of service to our members. I was proud to serve as a resource for the community and to work with member contractors and with those who had an ability to influence public policy debate.”

As well as advocating for its members at a time of great concern, the association also led the way both nationally and locally in educating workforces, says Thoden. “We did a deep reworking on how construction could be performed and performed safely.” Then, as with now, a lot of the work can be described as, “seeing around corners and telling the members what might be coming”. The national organization does that really well, says Thoden. “In addition, I put a monthly report together and let people know about things I am seeing on the radar; things I am monitoring that might come down the road.”

“We did a deep reworking on how construction could be performed and performed safely.”

So, what is he, and the team, looking at now? What might be coming on that radar screen? For AGC Austin and its members, the bottleneck of supply chain issues is a challenge that will need to be navigated carefully. “Construction projects were put on hold in 2020 and in 2021. These have been brought back off the shelf but meanwhile the ‘normal’ projects that were due to start are taking off at the same time. That heavy demand has run straight into the supply chain issue. We are now in a place of hyper-inflation and lengthy lead times for construction materials. We also have workforce shortages.”

With global high-tech names like Tesla, Dell, Oracle, Samsung, Facebook and Google on the scene here, it is no surprise that Austin is experiencing extended periods of growth. After all, this area that has been referred to as the “silicone hills” since the 1990s. This, according to Thoden, is largely down to the talent in the area. Adding to this, no doubt, is the quality of life. For Thoden, his own move was prompted by this very thing. “Washington DC is a great city, but it is challenging if you want to have a good work-life balance. Austin is great for this, and it is one of the reasons people love it,” he says. “I moved here in 2003 and didn’t have a job but shortly afterwards this position became available in a serendipitous way.”

The Austin AGC’s position in the community is underlined by the fact that it has been on the same site since 1947 – the year after it all started here. Recent renovations incorporated a two-story-high mural which serves to further emphasize its position in the neighborhood and has, understandably, attracted a lot of positive attention. Having reached their seventy-fifth anniversary, the idea was to do something that reflected and celebrated the built environment; that environment to which so many AGC members contribute. “We call it the Build a Great Life mural because, fundamentally, that’s what construction professionals do. Their career in the industry benefits themselves and their families while, at the same time, they are building a great life for everyone in the community who enjoys the offices, schools, churches, hospitals, hotels, apartments, restaurants, sports venues and many other structures throughout town brought from concept to reality by construction professionals. As for the artist, her dad’s an architect, so she has done a lot of murals on construction sites. She was perfect!”

Not surprisingly, Thoden has plenty of thoughts on current trends, challenges and opportunities in construction, both in Austin, and nationally. Currently, the industry is going through an exciting time. This, according to Thoden, has a lot to do with modern industry role models. People are seeing positive images of construction nowadays, he says. There are construction-related programs on TV with young people who are relatable and that helps enormously too. “More broadly, it is exciting to be in the construction industry now.” Among things that are helpful and positive right now are efforts to reach out to different, under-represented groups and an over-arching culture of “construction is cool.” Not only that, but Thoden also believes that the level of innovation on show in the industry is proving to be a huge attraction. “Technology is fascinating. There are a lot of innovations and, while they won’t replace skill, they will help to cut out a lot of waste in the industry.”

So, is this filtering though into more people taking up careers here in the industry? “I think we are in the beginning of it,” says Thoden. “I think we are going to see more people getting into things that have an ‘impact’. That trickles down to construction. There are some challenges of course.” As expected, AGC Austin is at the forefront when it comes to attracting entrants to the industry. “I think our national organization also has led the way in the ‘culture of CARE’,” he says. CARE, in this instance, being an acronym for: Commit. Attract. Retain. Empower. “The really smart companies are looking in the mirror and asking: “What are we doing to attract new groups?” What do we look like to a young person coming in, or to someone who doesn’t look like most of the others on the jobsite? Are we inviting them in and having their back if they have a problem?” According to Thoden, work is continuously being done to ensure that people see themselves as being a part of the industry. “We will combine the education we provide with our diversity and inclusion committee’s awards. So, currently, we are soliciting for companies locally who excel in their efforts, just like our national group has done.”

As for other activities, 2022 continues apace for AGC Austin. Lean construction is also a big theme at the moment. “We just had a session with the Lean Construction Institute and partnered with them on a workshop that sold out,” says Thoden. “It is based on a book called ‘The Lean Builder’. We talked a lot about ways to cut our waste and to work better with each other.” Looking forward, Thoden sees the work of the AGC as being very much in tandem with the development of the local area. “As Austin grows, so we need to continue to grow. We won’t take success for granted. Part of this will include fostering the next generation.” As Thoden says: it’s their responsibility to do so. “As our predecessors laid the table for us, so we must do the same.”

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