By Steve Coley, FIS president.

As I’m sure you are all aware by now, I, as current President of the FIS, took it upon myself as a martyr to the cause to take a week out of my busy schedule and go to the American drywall and suspended ceilings EXPO (completely funded by my own bank account). And yes, it was in Vegas, and yes, I had a great time. But what did I learn……

Well, our counterparts in the States – the AWCI – gave my wife and I a very warm welcome. The FIS got a mention in the President’s opening speech and the 350 delegates gave us a pleasant reception. During the Expo (which in the Queen’s English is a conference and an exhibition rolled into one) I got to speak to many American contractors, and you know what? Their world is not that different from ours with one large exception; did you know at least 50% of the US drywall / suspended ceiling sectors’ labour force has to be employed via a union! As with all Unions, they have lots of bureaucracy and caveats to how their people are employed! Dismiss one person for being idle and not pulling their weight and you could have a walk-out on your hands! I got talking to a chap called Chip, he said to directly employ a ceiling fixer it costs him $20 an hour. The individual’s actual cost including van, fuel, insurance, health care, pension etc, was $40 an hour. To employ a ceiling fixer in say New York through the union….$90 an hour……Bizarre. I can’t get my head around why the country at the forefront of Capitalism has a union provide its labour!!

Other than that the things we have in common; The subcontractors struggle to get paid from the main contractors…..snap. The subcontractors struggle to get their retention from the main contractors….snap. Programmes are too tight…. snap. And the big one; they have a serious skills shortage. Bingo. Full house. It seems for as long as they can remember they have been reliant on a leaky border with Mexico to supply around 30% of the workforce.

And then the newly appointed President Trump said: “We’re going to build a wall”……. well, what’s going to happen? The Union doesn’t want to put their hands in their pockets, the manufacturers don’t see it’s their responsibility, the subcontractors are all shrugging their shoulders. I told them they were lucky, at least they didn’t have CITB levy on top of all that! The American joke on top of all that is if the wall is going to be bricks and mortar…..they haven’t got enough brickies to build it this side of the next millennium!

The other topic I couldn’t get my head around was Health & Safety. Which considering from the nation that invented “where there’s a blame there’s a claim” their health and safety doesn’t compare to us. Go to the FIS website click on news and take a look at; the best in class, best in show, the US best-selling scaffold. You wouldn’t get as far as getting it out the back of your van over here, no adjustment on the feet, no handrail, no toe boards, manufactured out of steel rather than aluminium and that was the best they had to offer!

So I attended the awards brunch, and to be honest it was a little subdued compared to the razzamatazz of our awards at the Dorchester in June. It was different. But then you must remember the UK is roughly the same size as the state of Florida. The US is made up of 52 States. I’m attending the awards for the best of the best from 52 states. There are 350 people in the hall, of which the half of the attendees living on the east coast actually live closer to me in Birmingham than they do to the other half of the attendees that live in the same country on the west coast. Therefore, half of the room don’t know the other half. Whereas with our little club at the Dorchester there are 480 people, music, lights, applause, and jeers. And we all know somebody, who knows somebody, that can tell us about somebody.

So my day at the exhibition ; If you want to see some of my video blogs of what the hottest things on the US market are, click here for Hilti’s photographic Bluetooth laser measuring device, Hilti’s BIM digital laser measuring scan device (that enables you to mark (or survey) a whole floor of walls and ceilings without having to use a drawing or a tape measure!) safety clips that tie back boards leaning up walls so they can’t fall over. Plasterboard routering device that cuts and folds board with zero dust. Handheld pole sanders with dust extraction. 5ft high stilts. Lorries with Hiab’s on the back that can lift a pallet of plasterboard 8 storeys high and slide the pallet sideways through a window!

One of the things that became apparent during my visit is that unlike here in Blighty the US don’t have installation systems from the manufacturer. It is taken as the norm for an unbranded metal to be installed with a sheetrock (that’s plasterboard to you and me) with an unbranded deflection /fire head detail, with unbranded insulation with unbranded fixings with unbranded joint filler. That’s the norm. Consequently, there is a huge interest from China at the EXPO to get their products into the US market. It’s fascinating, how does the client know what he’s paying for? Have you just installed a pig’s ear or a silk purse? This wasn’t just the walls, it was ceilings as well, especially metal ceilings.

With value engineering in the UK is that something that could happen over here?

So all in all, the trip broadened my horizons. It was informative and interesting and I hope one day that the AWCI president and first lady will attend one of our functions if for nothing else than to watch their faces when one of our Geordie, Scouse, Brummie, Welsh or Cockney members try to converse with them. Because personally, my trip would have only been half empty without my Texan friend Randy who entertained me no end at the awards brunch.

A huge thanks to the AWCI for making me feel so welcome.