GroundBreak Carolinas thought it was an appropriate time to check in with Casey Schwager as he embarks on the home stretch of his second year as Carolinas AGC (CAGC) Board Chair. Schwager is a project manager with King Asphalt, a leading regional paving contractor manufacturer headquartered in Liberty, S.C. in the Upstate region of South Carolina. Our interview with Schwager comes on the heels of CAGC’s 2021 in-person Summer Summit in Myrtle Beach.
What are your thoughts on the Carolinas Construction economy in 2021?
In general, the economy seems very strong in the Carolinas. According to the Wall Street Journal, South Carolina was one of the Top 5 “most moved into states” in 2020. North Carolina is also a magnet for people wanting to live and work there. Interesting how the pandemic has affected/accelerated migration patterns within the United States. The key challenge with the influx of population to the Carolinas: can the infrastructure keep pace? I like to talk with surveying and engineering companies, who are working with developers as well, to get a feel for their workload as generally they are on the front end of projects. This time last year, not so much, but now it seems that they are really busy. This is a good sign for continued construction activity.
The new Biden administration has unveiled several new initiatives and programs, including infrastructure. What are your thoughts on the infrastructure program and how it will impact NC and SC?
I always welcome a discussion on additional funding for infrastructure at the national level. Most importantly, the industry needs long-term recurring funding that the industry can count on to plan future investments and growth for our organizations. However, the Biden Infrastructure Plan, in my opinion, is somewhat misleading. It calls for a lot of spending but covers so much more than what has traditionally been defined as “Infrastructure.” Currently, the plan only has $115 billion for road and bridge repairs. We can add to that number rail investment, ports and airports, electric generation projects and water system improvements, yet still only reach a total of $417 Billion. This is only about 18 percent of the total amount of the program going toward “Infrastructure.” Unfortunately, this is not enough to maintain our current systems and AGC of America and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) estimate that the actual infrastructure package falls short of what is really needed.
Infrastructure is a significant issue at the state level in NC and SC. What are CAGC’s key priorities?
In NC, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore spoke at a well-attended CAGC luncheon on June 10th in Raleigh. They were very supportive of a new $4.2 billion State Capital Infrastructure Plan. CAGC’s key priorities for both Carolinas are badly needed multi-billion-dollar funding to get where we need to be for highway-heavy, building and utility work for public infrastructure projects.
What are the top three priorities for the CAGC in 2021? What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure?
Our Board of Directors has been working on many initiatives over the years and it is my hope to continue those initiatives and help initiate additional direction for the future. Those are too many to list here, but include some interesting opportunities including safety always being our top priority, helping develop the next generation of leaders through our Young Leaders Program, and expanding the diversity in our membership. I will say that our priorities have changed radically since the beginning of 2020. 2020 was Carolinas AGC’s 100th Anniversary and we were excited to have planned more than 100 in-person events throughout the Carolinas during that year. Instead, we were met with COVID and rapidly had to pivot. This included going to a virtual meeting format, providing safety updates and joint safety programs with groups like the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT), and ensuring that our members were viewed as essential workers with the North and South Carolina legislatures so that projects could stay active. As we have moved through 2021 our main priority has been helping our members finish weathering the storm of 2020, and preparing to safely resume in-person meetings with our industry partners and members.
What are your thoughts on the PRO Act and how it will impact the construction industry in the Carolinas?
At Carolinas AGC, we have a strong track record in our 101-year history of being a leader in supporting open shop and the right to work in the Carolinas. The PRO Act is not just bad for employers, but also poses significant threats to workers and the good relations we enjoy in the Carolinas with employers and employees. The measure, approved in March in a partisan vote in the U.S. House, would force employers to divulge private information about their employees, denies workers the right to a secret ballot and would unleash a wave of labor unrest – exactly what we don’t need in states like North and South Carolina with excellent business climates. We strongly oppose the PRO Act and it is worth noting that, when the legislation was introduced in the House, AGC of America launched a national action alert that resulted in nearly 7,000 construction professionals taking action in sending over 30,000 messages to members of Congress and President Biden opposing the PRO Act. We are working hard, through AGC of America and CAGC, to prevent this from passing in the U.S. Senate.
CAGC recently released new videos for Build Your Career. Tell us what else we can expect from CAGC on workforce development.
Workforce development is and has been one of CAGC’s top priorities for several years. As mentioned, we have developed a media campaign, as well as a training program and materials for our ambassadors, and have worked very hard on connecting schools with local contractor representatives. This program had gained a lot of traction and I feel was about to break through to the next level when the pandemic limited our ability to get into schools to spread our message. However, now that things are beginning to return to normal, I expect big things in the future.
What are some specific things CAGC did to help its members during the pandemic?
Carolinas AGC has worked diligently to provide timely information about how to be safe in the construction industry and how to minimize COVID exposure. In North Carolina, through our CAGC Foundation, we received a $3.75 million grant from the NC General Assembly to help the construction industry offset COVID-related costs. We used this grant to launch a very successful media campaign targeting minority members of the construction industry on what steps they need to take to be safe.
What are the biggest challenges for your members (COVID, safety, workforce, other)?
Currently the number one challenge for our industry is workforce, or lack thereof. Drive around most towns in the Carolinas and you will see that we are not alone. I am hearing from businesses in all sectors of our economy that are having to turn away business because they just don’t have the people to do the work. I will let others draw their own conclusions as to why this is, but ultimately, I think this is going to drive further innovation and hurt the overall future employment outlook as businesses turn to automation wherever possible.
What are key events we should put on our calendars?
The Summer Summit is typically our biggest event of the year. The 2021 Summer Summit at Myrtle Beach, held during the third week of July, drew 525 attendees. I know everyone in the industry was excited to be together again after so much time apart. Also, in recent weeks we resumed numerous in-person networking and educational/training events throughout the Carolinas. Coming up on November 5th is our Centennial Bash, rescheduled from last year. We are really excited to be able to hold the event this year.
Tell our readers a little about yourself.
I grew up in West Virginia and attended Clemson University (B.S. in Construction Science and Management, 2003) where I met my wife Kerri. We have three wonderful children, Ivy, Wren and Axel. I spent summers working highway construction in Florida during school and have been working in the highway industry ever since. I recently joined King Asphalt and am thoroughly enjoying working with their team.