Merit Contractors Association

Representing the people of the construction industry

The core of the construction industry is its workers. The backbone of every project, construction companies employ thousands of people in Alberta and many more across Canada. Somewhat in contrast to public perception, about 85 per cent of the work in Alberta is open shop. That is employment is not restricted to members of a union. The Merit Contractors Association of Alberta is the voice of the open shop construction industry in Alberta. This not-for-profit trade association is particularly unique as it is the only trade association that focuses solely on human resources needs. The association works with businesses to help them utilize the best employee relations practices and offers a multitude of benefits or services for companies who join.

There was obviously a demand for this in Alberta as the association has been quite successful. It currently retains about 15 to 20 new companies that join every month, from small mom-and-pop shops to major players in the construction industry like Stuart Olsen, Clark Builders and CMEC Energy Services. So why would a construction company join? The Canadian Business Journal spoke with President Stephen Kushner about the benefits of membership, the associations’ vision and goals and campaigns for the future.

Membership benefits

It is in any company’s best interest to follow sound business practices in regard to employee relations. Naturally, there is merit to having access to a voice of expertise. What else is driving businesses to voluntarily seek membership? The Merit Contractors Association offers a slew of benefits to members including access to employee benefits, training, retirement programs, tuition refunds and more.

One of the major components of the association’s services is the operation of a group insurance benefits plan. Essentially, this insurance plan offers members affordable insurance designed specifically for members of the construction industry. Over 50,000 employees use this service. As construction workers frequently have fluctuating hours or off periods, the association offers an effective way to handle administrative services for these companies. It is also a strategically cost-effective move for business owners. Comments Kushner, “Our member companies get benefits significantly lower than if it was done through an agent.” They also offer a retiree benefit program for those workers who have retired and still wish to have access to the same benefits they had while working.

The Merit Contractors Association of Alberta works in tandem with other organizations to promote and enhance other aspects of the job as well, such as the Alberta Safety Association. This cooperation, Kushner explains, means the association doesn’t duplicate their services. Rather, they complement what other associations offer. “We work closely with safety organizations,” he says. The mandate is to help the industry be a better place to work in as many capacities as possible.

Training and education

A point of pride for the Merit Contractors Association of Alberta is its involvement in training and education programs for the industry. The training component is largely focused on seminars or courses with a human resources theme. For example, project management courses, seminars for companies to better understand labour relations, or management training. Says Kushner, “We try to offer training in areas where we see the industry is lacking and could benefit.” On the educational side, the association operates a tuition reimbursement program for members. Hiring apprentices is a very common practice in the trades. Member employees who successfully complete apprenticeship training and then return to work for the company are able to have their tuition fees reimbursed. Another service of the Merit Contractors Association of Alberta is its job placement services. Merit operates one of the largest online job banks for tradesmen in the province. Says Kushner, “In any given month, upward of 1,000 people apply.” This trade-specific resource is an invaluable tool for both workers and business owners.

Growth and development plans

An association with humble beginnings, the Merit Contractors Association of Alberta has experienced a successful period of expansion. The association had a steep growth period—membership has increased from 15 companies in 1996 to over 1,300 today. Since its inception, the association has experienced a growth rate of about 20 per cent a year. Kushner concedes that growth has been at a marginally slower rate since the recent economic downturn, but is nevertheless still growing. The survival tactic, he notes, is to continually add new companies to make up for the overall decrease in man hours. For this reason, the volume of man hours has remained consistent throughout the recession.

Continuous, progressive development is an important part of the associations’ mandate. Kushner is particularly excited about the development of an umbrella group called Merit Canada which will be opening their offices in Ottawa during the first quarter of 2011. The venture will consolidate the voices of the many Merit groups across Canada and is in the ideal location to discuss issues that involve the federal government. There are many current public policy issues which affect the human resources interests of construction workers, such as immigration reform and competition laws which affect the procuring of work across the country, among others. Says Kushner, “Our organizations’ mandate is to be a catalyst for positive changes that companies can introduce in areas of human resources.” The association wants to help the industry be a better place to work, communicating that message to its membership.

Another exciting area of growth is the continued expansion into the ‘e-learning’ environment. Many of the associations’ training and educational resources are based online—and this will only continue to grow. Many of our management and leadership programs have an online component and this area of learning is continually expanding. In whatever capacity, the Merit Contractors Association of Alberta is continually committed to the well-being of the industry’s backbone—its people. Adds Kushner, “Human resource development is what we’re about.”