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Merit Alberta members celebrate 30 years of open shop

Jean Sorensen
Merit Alberta members celebrate 30 years of open shop

As Merit Alberta Contractors Association lights the candles on its 30th anniversary celebration this year, a fitting icon on the cake-top might be a grading machine as its president Malcolm Kirkland views the continued challenge of creating a level playing field for association members.

"The Merit philosophy is really quite simple. We believe in openness, fairness and transparency. We believe that everyone has the right to apply for tender, everyone has the right to bid on work and when that does not happen, then, we are an advocacy group," said Kirkland, who heads the open shop organization founded in 1986.

"We are not anti-union," Kirkland stresses as Merit Alberta does not want to see issues polarized or one group against another.

But, rather he believes there should be an inclusive working environment for all construction companies.

He points to the federal government announcement that apprentice funding of $85 million over five years with $10 million for two years starting to flow in 2017/2018 made available to unionized training.

"It shouldn’t matter whether you are union or open-shop," said Kirkland as funding, which represents taxes from all Canadians, should be made equally available to all those who want to undertake apprenticeship training.

Merit Alberta members have invested $25 million over the past decade into training programs that include apprentices, providing 120 annual $300 awards to high-school students pursuing technology careers, providing support for first-time Canadians and women in construction.

As well as supporting training initiatives for craftsmen and new industry entrants, Merit Alberta has played a key role in providing training for company supervisors, managers and owners, an initiative that sustains the economic health of companies and ultimately the economy.

"Back in the early days, when we started in 1986, the supervisor training program was really the flagship program — and it has continued today," said Marla McCready, director of Alberta’s Merit College of Construction.

"It is a program that was developed as a result of the need to have supervisors trained in leadership and soft skills. Our supervisors are the front line people and they need to be trained to ensure that a project succeeds."

McCready said the viability of project will ultimately reflect in the success of companies.

Too often a supervisor may come into the leadership role mainly because of his longevity on the job or his craftsmen skills.

However, that individual may lack good people skills.

Individuals in leadership roles need to know how to motivate, communicate well, and resolve issues with employees.

The need to have well-trained supervisors is especially critical in years such as 2016 when the Alberta construction industry has experienced a slow-down.

It is also important during times when "you are crazy busy", said McCready.

While Merit Alberta originally started with its flagship course, it has continued adding courses both on-line and in the classroom and brought them under the umbrella of the College.

"The idea was to create an entity to house all the training and educational programming, which is now very broad," said McCready.

Education has also changed with industry demands, she said.

"We are always working to ensure that all our programs stay current and are leading edge to represent what is happening in the industry today," she said.

The scope now encompasses areas such as technology, safety, management, administrative skills, and business skills.

"We have grown a large site of training programs," she said.

The diversity of the College offerings has allowed it to help with the learning needs of other Merit organizations in Canada, many of whom are smaller than the Alberta association. McCready said

Merit Alberta has been able to play a role in providing on-line and seminar educational sessions to the smaller associations.

"They do not have the membership to develop their own programs, so as a sister organization, we work with them," she said, adding the Alberta organization encourages others to develop their own infrastructure and instructors so the Merit material can be adapted and used by those provincial members.

Merit Alberta was the first of eight Merit association founded in Canada with the concept of open shop taken from the U.S. by the founding Alberta construction companies. (Only B.C.’s Independent Contractors and Businesses Association is older).

Merit Alberta now boasts 1,400 companies but the original founding members banded together as a means of staying in business during the turbulent 1980s when the labour scene in Canada was rife with strikes and disputes and the Canadian economy in the death-grip of a downward spiral.

Alberta also bore further effects of a depressed oil industry and the National Energy Program, which was a federal government attempt to control and own a portion of the oil industry.

"It was really as bad as it could get," said Brad Wright, vice-president of Merit Alberta’s benefit services, as the first 15 companies banded together to survive.

They soon realized they needed a solid group benefits program since without one they could not hope to retain their employees.

"The compensation package available in the open shop at that time was not competitive inside the construction industry and not competitive with the entire economy.

When the founders developed the open shop, one of the first things they had to deal with was group benefits."

Since then, its Mercon Benefits Service plan, which began with the original companies and employees, has grown to cover the 1,400 Alberta companies and allows employees to move from employer to employer without losing benefits.

"Collectively, that is 51,000 Albertans working in construction plus their families and that is about 200,000 people in the benefits program," said Wright.

But, more importantly, its legacy is a program that has evolved into providing the needs of employees in a cyclical construction industry.

The program proves an hour bank, office supervisor benefit plan, life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment insurance, extended health care, vision care, dental care, disability benefits and an employee and family assist program and Best Doctors services plus other optional services.

Merit also has a retiree benefit plan for retired members of the hour bank and office supervisory benefit plan with the plan providing extended health care coverage plus other options.

The hour bank, which is unique in Alberta, allows employees to bank hours and use those hours to continue benefits when not employed.

"It is in this economy that the hour bank has proven important over the past 16 months," said Wright.

Going forward into the next decade, Kirkland sees increased opportunity to grow the membership and bring new companies into the association as the hardships experienced in the past are defining the needs of members in the future.

"We have had some fantastic bright minds in the construction industry and they have helped us get established," he said, pointing to the group benefits plan.

"It is the envy of everyone in Canada and we hope to further reduce rates for members and expand the program," he said.

Quick Facts – Merit Alberta Contractors Association:

1986 - Merit Alberta was the first of eight Merit associations founded in Canada and was formed as a means of staying in business during the 1980s

2006-2016 - Merit members have invested $25M for industry training over the past decade

2016 - Mercon Benefits Service plan now providing health benefits to 51K Albertans working in construction which translates into roughly 200,000 individuals in the benefit program

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