BELLWOOD, ILL. — Michael Cullinane is single-mindedly devoted to union contractors, to the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, and to union plumbers and pipefitters.

Cullinane is president/comptroller of Bert C. Young & Sons Corp., located in this Chicago suburb. He will be installed as president of MCAA during the association's 117th annual convention this month in Hawaii.

The union sector has been in decline for a long time, he noted, and it's time to turn it around. Part of this has been the fault of union contractors and labor. The union side had been the only game in town for so long that it didn't know how to sell itself to owners.

"The nature of our competition has changed," Cullinane told CONTRACTOR. "Al-though the Chicago area maintains a high percentage of union work, that is not always the case. Where our playing field used to be level, we find ourselves, at times, competing against a company with lower labor costs. That means we have to sell ourselves through productivity, efficiency, quality and timeliness."

Owners can choose to work with any contractor they please, and it's up to union contractors to make sure that the owners pick them, he said.

"Our industry has suffered for many years with an 'image' problem," Cullinane said. "Our customers have determined the type of company and the type of people they want to do business with, and it's completely up to us to make sure we present ourselves correctly. I believe that there has been a real change over the past several years. It took us awhile, but we now know that we're not the only game in town."

He said he's a big fan of United Association plumbers and fitters. One aspect of his job that he can't do as often as he would like is to get out to jobsites. He expressed tremendous respect and admiration for the skills and dedication of the plumbers and pipefitters and said it is a pleasure to see what they do.

"We're literally nothing without them," he said.

Members of management and labor each have tasks before them to revitalize union construction, some separately and some as partners.

"Both management and union labor realize that things must change in order for us to grow and prosper," Cullinane said. "Our sector of the industry will not let this decline persist. There's too much at stake."

One hopeful sign for him is the vitality of MCAA.

It is a testament to his predecessors and the MCAA staff that member-ship has risen over the past several years while the union construction market has slipped, he said. Member-ship growth will continue because the demand for educational offerings is stronger than ever, he noted, adding that MCAA evaluates, improves and adds programs based on the needs of the members.

Cullinane singled out the National Education Initiative, the Project Performance Conference and the Management Methods Manual as programs that have helped him personally in his role managing Bert C. Young & Sons.

"There isn't a day that goes by that we don't refer to something we learned through MCAA," he noted.

The association is also working on cultivating future managers by growing the number of MCAA student chapters. There are now more than 36 student chapters nationwide.

"Once these young people are working for MCAA contractors, the learning opportunities continue," Cullinane said. "The Institute for Project Management is available, as well as a new offering, the Strategic Estimating Conference, which will debut in Cleveland this coming June."

The United Association has to take a hand in recruiting more young people to the industry, he said. Cullinane noted that Sean O'Ryan of the UA has produced a thesis documenting the upcoming manpower shortage and the need to look 10 or more years ahead, while collective bargaining agreements usually span no more than three years. O'Ryan's demographic study points out the exodus that will take place soon due to the retirements of the baby boomer generation.

Cullinane said he would like to present to MCAA members a managementand-labor plan that would lead to true market share recovery.

"This would require a commitment from everyone in our sector of the industry," he said. "The only way to do this will be to form a true partnership with labor, establish meaningful goals and take the necessary steps to implement those goals. Labor and management, locally and nationally, can change what should be changed, enhance what should be enhanced, and we will be able to turn our ship around. Do we have the will to do this? I believe we do."

Cullinane worked as a business analyst out of college, but he wasn't entirely comfortable in the corporate world. Jim Young Sr. offered him a "temporary" job at Bert C. Young & Sons that turned into a 29-year career.

Initiating change is the toughest aspect of his job, he said, because everyone, himself included, can get too comfortable doing the tried and true.

Cullinane is active in the association on both the national and local level. At the national level, he serves on the board of directors and the Association Executives Council Marketing Committee. He is a past chairman of the Industry Improvement Funds Committee and served on the Advanced Leader-ship Institute Committee.

At the local level, he is a past president of the MCA of Chicago, where he serves on the Apprentice and Government Affairs committees. In addition, he is a trustee for the Piping Education Council and Pipefitters Local 597's 401(k) plan and is past president of the Chicagoland Better Heating & Cooling Council.

Cullinane said he's honored that he has been able to work with and represent both associations. His philosophy is that you have to hang around with smart people in order to get smarter, and those involved with MCAA are intelligent and highly motivated.