H. E. Callahan’s chief shares his vision for the Associated Constructors of Maine.

AUBURN – As a construction engineer, Jeffrey Ohler has been building things his whole adult life.

Now, as president of Associated Constructors of Maine, a trade group representing Maine’s construction industry, Ohler is attempting to build something a little different from supermarkets and office buildings: membership.

Ohler, president of H. E. Callahan Construction Co., was installed as head of the trade group a couple of weeks ago and immediately unveiled an ambitious agenda. Top among them: expanding the ranks of the 250 businesses ACM represents.

“So few carry the weight for so many,” said Ohler, who’s been a member of ACM for more than 20 years. The organization lobbies for the construction industry, as well as provides training and professional resources for its members. “With issues such as contractor licensing, you’re letting other people decide your fate (if you don’t belong).”

The goal is to get a net gain of 5 percent per year, but “I’d like to do better than that. … I think the sky’s the limit,” he said.

Ohler isn’t hoping just to expand ACM membership, but to expand the numbers of people employed in construction as well.

That industry is facing a common problem in Maine: the graying of its work force and a shortage of young workers coming up the ranks. According to Scott Tompkins, spokesman for ACM, the average age of a construction worker in Maine is 47; of a supervisor, 64.

“Over the last five years we’ve experienced a real labor shortage industrywide,” said Ohler. “Yet construction is one of the fastest growing industries in the state,” he said, citing a report that shows 700 new construction businesses started in 2004.

One way Ohler hopes to increase the number of young people in construction is by establishing a young constructors forum. The forum would allow young people to get together to share ideas, resources and professional development tips.

“I think it can be a way to attract young managers and hold their interest,” said Ohler. A first meeting is tentatively planned for June.

ACM already dedicates much of its resources to work-force development by offering safety and training classes to its members, but also it partners with other groups around the state to train workers for specific construction jobs to boost the labor pool. Ohler said ACM’s work is particularly important in that field since so many of Maine’s technical schools have dropped trade programs – a trend he’s hoping he can help reverse by talking to community colleges.

And he hopes his yearlong tenure at the helm of ACM will produce one other change: a flip of ACM’s historic reactive stance on pending bills in Augusta into a proactive one.

This session ACM is trying to derail a bill that would impose extra requirements on contracts for Maine State Housing Authority projects. It’s also assessing a bill that attempts to shift risk between building owners and contractors when there’s negligence.

“We’re currently developing ideas for future legislation – not for this session – but in the future,” said Ohler. “Rather than constantly being on the defensive, we’d like to put forth our own agenda.”

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