A Q&A with Keystone Contractors Association Executive Director Jon O’Brien

As executive director of the Keystone Contractors Association, headquartered in Mechanicsburg, Jon O’Brien is one of the most vocal voices in construction in Pennsylvania.

O’Brien has spent decades advocating for construction companies throughout Pennsylvania. In the following interview, O’Brien reflects on his work in the industry, examines how the COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed the way business is done, and offers ways state lawmakers can help. construction workers and businesses in the years to come.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the mission of the Keystone Contractors Association.

The KCA is a trade association for commercial construction. We were founded in the 1940s to be a collective bargaining agent on behalf of contractors. We are the management side of the labour-management relationship in construction. Our initial objective was to help construction companies so that they did not have to fend for themselves and negotiate collective agreements. We get all the management companies together and negotiate together, and we work with the non-mechanical trades – we negotiate with carpenters, labourers, cement workers, operations engineers, masons and millwrights. It was kind of our only goal. And probably for the first 20 years, that’s all we focused on; then we moved to include security services. Today we do a lot of marketing, promotion and recruitment of workers – which is huge today. These are basic services that we provide. We sort of bill ourselves and market ourselves as an extension of a construction company’s staff. Whatever their needs, we are here to help them.

Tell us about your journey.

After high school, I was in the Navy for four years, working in supplies – sort of an accounting role. And then I went to college – to Pitt – where I majored in sports journalism. Right after college, I started working for a paint company; I was a technical writer with certified bridge painters. I started in the early 2000s. Then I worked for the Master Builders Association – a similar group to the KCA – for almost 15 years when this position opened up. I grew up in Mechanicsburg and after college spent 20 years in Pittsburgh – and now I’m back.

From your perspective, what are the most pressing issues facing the construction industry?

Perhaps the most pressing issue is the workforce, with retirements and attempts to encourage and promote careers in our industry. I remember having these conversations 20 years ago when I entered the industry. It seems to be getting worse… something has to give.

What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry?

I think on the positive side, we have cleaner worksites and cleaner professionals and workers on the worksites. People understand germs and viruses better – it was never really a big deal a few years ago. Other lasting effects are contracts. Material prices seem to fluctuate so much that special attention is paid to this from the outset. Owners, when hiring contractors, want to see the numbers going up: “Lumber has gone up by X amount, I want to see that first hand.” You see a lot more open books and more transparency – I think that’s great – especially on the start of projects.

How can state legislators help the construction industry?

It seems that every attempt at legislation – it’s more rules. I constantly hear from the Legislature, “Well, your guys follow the rules, your contractors follow the rules. So we’re just creating more rules in hopes of catching these bad companies, these bad actors. And I’m like, “Well, why don’t you just apply what we already have in the books?” It just seems like there is an endless search for more regulations and more rules for construction companies to follow and the bad actors don’t follow them in the first place and they are already breaking the law by the way they operate . So why are we creating more laws to break and more laws to follow for good KCA characters?

What can be done to attract more construction and development to the state?

It’s more on the real estate side when I talk to developers, but I constantly hear when they work with other states that those states are more welcoming, more landlord friendly. The authorization process is accelerated. A developer told me recently that he works in North Carolina – he said the same kind of process to get your permits in North Carolina takes less than a month – and here you’re looking at at least six months. So it’s little things like that – it adds up and it rubs people the wrong way. If I have options where I can go, why should I pick a place that might be a problem?

Andrew B. Reiter