BRATTLEBORO — A local construction consultant firm has received a big honor from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR).
HELM Construction Solutions was presented with VBSR's 2021 Innovation & Inspiration Award on Oct. 12 at the organization's annual awards ceremony at the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes.
VBSR says it gives the award annually to a Vermont business “who has recently accomplished an innovative and/or inspirational achievement with not only economic impact but social or environmental impact.”
With its primary office in the Hooker-Dunham Building in Brattleboro, HELM says it “provides business consulting, coaching, estimating, project management, and specialized training to high-performance design and build companies across the U.S. and Canada.”
HELM's stated purpose is to “revolutionize the construction industry, centering the triple bottom line principles of planet, people, and prosperity to become a catalyst for climate justice.”
The firm is a majority woman, trans, and non-binary owned and operated company, and works “to disrupt toxic masculinity and advocate for the participation of women and LGBTQIA people in the trades.”
Mel Baiser, strategic director and co-partner of HELM Construction Solutions, said the award is a big honor for them, especially since HELM and VBSR have much in common in the areas of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.
VBSR has long advocated for businesses that follow what's become known as the “triple bottom line,” something that Baiser, who co-owns the business with Kate Stephenson, said HELM totally embraces.
HELM, formed in 2016, serves dozens of small businesses across the country as clients, with an emphasis on creating what the firm calls “high performance, energy efficient, and low-carbon buildings.”
At the same time, HELM has also worked hard to create a more diverse workforce in the construction trades.
Baiser, who uses “they/them” pronouns and is genderqueer - a person who eschews conventional gender assignment and identifies as neither male nor female, or some combination of the two - says that promoting diversity has a practical side for the construction trades.
“Construction is one of the few businesses that have been booming during the pandemic,” Baiser said. “And, as consultants, our job is pretty much recession proof. The problem is that there is a severe labor shortage in the building trades, and that's been the case even before the pandemic.”
With many older tradespeople retiring, Baiser said not enough younger people have stepped up to replace them as carpenters, plumbers, painters, electricians, and laborers.
“We have a whole generation that skipped going to trade school,” Baiser said.
Baiser, 43, followed the familiar path of going to college and getting a liberal arts degree. The seventh-generation Vermonter worked as a community organizer in California in the San Francisco area.
But a side gig doing a demolition project on the weekends turned Baiser on to the possibilities of working in the building trades.
Starting as an apprentice carpenter, Baiser learned the construction business from the bottom up. Soon, they went from working on the job site to learning the process of organizing a construction project.
A certificate in construction management soon followed, and a return to Vermont to start Baiser Construction Management in 2012.
In 2016, Baiser teamed up with Stephenson, a former executive director of Yestermorrow, the design/build school in Waitsfield, to create HELM. It turned out to be a perfect fit, as both had complementary skill sets and a passion to help contractors build better buildings that are good for people as well as the environment.
Baiser said HELM adjusted to the pandemic by doing more work remotely. Despite the economic troubles elsewhere, they said that the firm has tripled in size and has satellite offices in Montpelier, Boston, Chicago, and Portland, Maine.
However, there is still the problem of labor shortages in the building trades, which have affected building projects big and small all over Vermont and the Northeast.
Baiser said “we are in a field that's predominantly [cisgender] male” but the construction industry is learning that women, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people can do the work - and for someone who has the drive and confidence to enter the field, there are opportunities.
“Too many people feel like they have to go to college,” Baiser said. “The construction trades have a lot of really great jobs that pay well.”
Baiser believes the construction field, while not perfect, is coming around to embracing a more diverse workforce - not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it's good for the bottom line.
HELM has done its part in aid this process with support and training, including developing written materials such as the “Gender Toolkit for Construction Business Owners.”
Those materials, and more information, can be found at buildhelm.com.