RAMS Mechanical Services
Election-year budget jitters spur Central Texas commercial contractor
Election year political antics in the United States can be enough to drive many people to tear out their hair, swear off drinking and threaten to move to Canada if their candidate doesn’t win. The other edge of that sword is certain aspects of election-year political antics tend to bring extra work for contractors.
Ricky Stecher, vice president of RAMS Mechanical Services, a commercial specialist in Temple, Texas, speculates those in control of Federal budgets, for example, like to get rid of their cash right before an election because they don’t know what the next administration will bring.
“Will it be a cut in funding? Do you know what I mean? So they don’t want a lot of funds sitting around,” he says, noting part of RAMS’ plumbing and electrical production is in concrete modular restrooms built by L.B. Foster that ship all over the United States. That’s run by his spouse and business partner, Margaret Stecher.
Great work if you can get it
The Stechers — high school sweethearts who’ve been dating since 1976 — started the company 13 years ago after Ricky left his former job as a field supervisor with another plumbing company. Today the company currently has 26 employees, with seven plumbers and two electricians.
The company is centrally located in a territory that stretches along Interstate 35 from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area in the north through Austin and into San Antonio in the south. “It just depends on the job,” Stecher says, noting L.B. Foster’s modular buildings mainly go to national parks and Corps of Engineers land.
“That’s real busy this year,” he says, noting the buildings move along, assembly line-like, to various stations where plumbing and electrical is installed and tested before they’re shipped out. “They have full two-inch copper water lines. run into them. They might be concession stands; they might have 20 water closets in them … 10 urinals. They can make them as big as the customer wants.”
Stecher notes there’s also plenty of work aboard the Army’s nearby Ft. Hood, one of the largest U.S. military installations in the world. But it’s not all bureaucratic government cubicle-dwellers with clip-on ties and short-sleeved shirts offloading heaps of cash in an election year. The uncertainty surrounding the upcoming election also has those in the local civilian commercial segment acting now in an effort to avoid possible future regulations and/or taxes. There’s also the Texas immigration factor to consider.
“I think things pick up more before a changing government,” he says. “I would say the last couple of years we could stay busy, but right now there’s more stuff than we can really bid. There’re quite a lot of things up for bid. It’s estimated there are several thousand people moving into Texas every week.”
Why? Jobs, of course. Stecher, incoming PHCC Texas president, says: “Yes, there are jobs. There aren’t enough people to fill the jobs, especially [those requiring] some type of training. Plumbing, of course, electricians, nurses, even manufacturers are having problems filling jobs.”
A familiar pattern
Like many in the plumbing business today, RAMS Mechanical is having a tough time finding qualified people to fill the jobs created by the healthy market in the area.
“There’s a huge shortage of licensed plumbers in the state in a lot of places,” he says, noting some 60% of licensed plumbers in the state can be considered middle-aged. Projections are for the age of the industry in the state to keep increasing.
“It’s hard for companies to grow if you follow the rules,” he says, remarking the commercial plumbing operation has taken a page from the very lean modular concrete business. “The lean construction that we do at both places is how we can do more with less. So that’s the challenge.”
In a way the plumbing business is an incubator for new businesses — sort of a glacier from which drops off icebergs of new companies. It may also play a role in the aging of the industry on the commercial side.
There’s a familiar pattern on the service and repair side: Go through apprentice training, get work, be the new guy taking a big bite of the you-know-what sandwich until you know what you’re doing and eventually striking out on your own to start your own company. The barriers to entry are a little higher on the commercial side.
“The [commercial side of the industry is] kind of more difficult because you need assets,” he says. “And you need some relationships. I was fortunate because I worked for another company and had worked for all the general contractors and so I knew all of them. It kind of helped me get a head start.”
How to fix it?
Simple, Stecher says, but it’s going to take time.
“You’re going to have to get involved with your local government and the PHCC,” he says. “I’m involved on a state level to change [perceptions], to help superintendents and counselors in school districts let the students know there’s another path other than college and that it takes a lot of your time but it’s going to have to happen because of the shortage.”
Couldn’t an argument be made that, along with the educators, parents need some education? After all, they don’t want little Tyler or Preston or whatever to be an icky, dirty plumber. They want little Tyler or Preston or whatever, to “go into computers.” Well, according to collegeatlas.org, 70% of Americans will study at a four-year college, but less than 66% of them will graduate and, even though a college degree has a bigger return on investment in the United States than anywhere else, some 30% of college and university students drop out after the first year (http:bit/ly/1jqFuGS). The fact is not everybody’s kid is cut out for college and the sooner that’s accepted the sooner the kid can get a start on a career in the trades.
“I actually have friends on my school board and I have a superintendent that understands all this and he is actually working with us at the PHCC,” Stecher says.
Involvement in furthering education and training is a priority for Stecher. In addition to PHCC and school board involvement, he donates his time to help kids in construction trades training who are entering competition and sort of “shows them the ropes” of plumbing. “They go into competition every year and do very well,” he says.
Stecher is a dabbler, too. But, while some guys are into old cars or golf, he’s experimenting around with non-hybrid wheat.
“I’ve been experimenting a lot because I’m thinking of retirement,” he says, noting the retirement plan is to take up residence in Costa Rica. Fishing is on the schedule for most of the year, but it will be different during the rainy season.
“What I’m gonna do during the rainy season is I’ve been practicing with playing with hydroponics, aquaponics and growing non-GMO stone corn and wheat and then grinding it up to a flour in a mill and all kinds of stuff,” he says. “When you’re in the rainy season in Central America, it’s good to have something to do.”