After being idle for several months, masons have started to work on this 10,000-square-foot strip shopping center project in Chicago.
After being idle for several months, masons have started to work on this 10,000-square-foot strip shopping center project in Chicago.

A few blocks east of our office, a small commercial project has sat idle. Workers erected the mast climber but they didn't raise it from the start position. The telehandler was parked to corral the few pallets of brick that had been delivered. And the mixers were chained to the legs of the material silos.

I avoided driving past the site. It reminded me of what many of you are experiencing. True, this Chicago winter was one of the worst in many years. Heavy snow and bitter cold, followed by soggy ground were good reasons to issue a call-off.

In better times, the owner would have wanted the building to be finished ASAP. The GC may have been willing to pay for the heat. And by the predawn winter light, the masons would have been grumbling as they walked from the nearby convenience store with coffee, complaining about the weather.

Two days ago, there was a sign of recovery. A small crew had taken control of the barren site. A few masons were laying block for small columns on the west side of the building. The telehandler had set a pallet on the mast climber. And there was just a faint wisp of dust rising from the mixing area. Work was resuming.

I didn't stop to speak with the crew. Even so, I couldn't help asking myself, how did those masons feel? Were they glad to be back? Were they upset that they'd been off?

The subject of work, or lack thereof, came up often at last month's World of Concrete. I was surprised by the cautious optimism. Many contractors said they had reduced their number of crews. Most said they were at the show to learn about new techniques in the hopes of taking on differing types of work and expanding their offerings. And most said that they thought 2009 would be similar to 2008.

But underlying all this cautious optimism was one concern. How would their workers react to these economic times? One person said it best: “Our crews had a good run. Plenty of work, plenty of contractors calling them to jump jobs, and a good opportunity to make a good living, but now it's different.”

Many older masons have been through this bust-to-boom-to-bust cycle. But how will the younger ones react? Will they be upset over the absence of OT and want to blame someone for the lack of work? Will they stay in the industry?

It's common on many projects for mason contractors to hold a weekly tailgate safety meeting. This year it might be a good idea to hold a different kind of pre-job meeting. Our industry is about to spend a lot of money, effort, and talent promoting masonry to the design and architectural community. I propose you spend some time spreading this message.

In this market safety meeting, describe how long this project was in the planning stage. Explain why the owner and architect chose masonry. Point out the challenges you had in bidding the project. And remind each employee on each job that the only way there will be another job is if he builds this project with pride, timeliness, and quality. You'll build a stronger team—one based on quality, safety, and pride.

I can help you rekindle the spirit of masonry in your crews. Encourage them to sign up for our e-mail MASONRY CONSTRUCTION newsletter. It's a great way to keep them updated with what's happening in our industry. Just have them fill out the form on page 42 and fax it in. We'll take care of the rest.