The stigma of being a “ditch digger” is something the construction industry has battled for decades. Whether it’s the dirt, working in the elements or a lack of understanding about what a career in construction can provide, companies are still struggling to attract workers as the labor pool continues to get shallow and schools push college instead of trades. However, today’s industry isn’t your granddad’s, and the opportunities in construction are abundant. Technological advancements in the equipment, telematics and grading systems have taken a lot of the guesswork out of the job and helped contractors increase their productivity. And you can’t forget the good pay, travel opportunities and chance for promotions.
But don’t take it from us. Listen to the men in the machines. At the NUCA Convention back in March, we had the chance to gather five contractors from across the country to talk about the industry and where it’s headed. The group we dubbed the “Young Guns of Utility Construction” (spoiler: there’s no Emilio Estevez as Billy the Kid cameo), graciously chatted about everything from technology and workforce development to infrastructure funding and their experiences on the job. Here’s what they had to say.
Utility Contractor: Let’s start it off and cover the topics of technology and software. Where are you guys today from that standpoint?
McLaughlin: We’re an older contractor so it’s been really slow implementing. We’ve hired a lot of young people, so we’re starting to really come up from that aspect. What we’ve seen through attending trade shows are grade control systems on track hoes, dozers and such. We all know and all have the same problems with the labor shortages and the lack of qualified personnel.
What I see, especially with the new equipment, you can almost put in a percent of grade for a ditch line and run the track hoe. You don’t even need an experienced pipe layer or operator anymore. It seems like that’s where I think the technology is really going as far as labor. You just don’t need the qualified help that you did 20 years ago. It really shocked me. We all know the GPS controllers and such, but now these backhoes that can really run these percents of grade and really almost lay a pipeline or sewer line for you — it takes all the guesswork out of it. Takes a lot of human error out of it.
Lane: We are kind of on the same path. We are family-owned, been around for 30 years, but we like our Excel. It’s been really hard to find a program that can actually do what we’re doing in Excel. They all are usually wanting to do too much. We like keeping things simple. We don’t need a lot of functionality. We just need some basic XYZ. We don’t need plans that are going to be uploaded and all this stuff because we do utilities. We aren’t building a skyscraper.
We’re wanting to move that direction because we see a lot of inefficiencies because paper is inefficient, having to pick it all up and get it to somewhere then do data entry. But it’s been hard to find the technology for our little niche, that’s just basic utility installation that actually isn’t overkill. I think it’s coming. Like you’re saying, the qualified labor is the hardest part. Getting a foreman that can fill a piece of paper out right is also hard. If you can find the program that’s not too overcomplicated, I think we’ll be in a good spot. Right now we just haven’t been able to find it.
Beinhower: We are also a family-owned business. I have two other brothers involved in the business with me. We started to integrate with HCSS software suite with Heavy Bid initially and then moved into Heavy Job. We have since integrated Equipment 360 for fleet management. We use the fueler platform on it. We are actually looking into the safety platform.
Our fleet management software has definitely helped. I switched to Foundation Software’s construction-based software for accounting. We, kind of, outgrew QuickBooks. We are working on system integration now with all of our software packages. HCSS is still a pretty hands-on company, and you can deal with the programmers and get it modified for yourself. We have all those programs starting to talk to each other and import and export data between them.
It’s been a monumental task to implement it. I’ve gotten guys that never even could turn a computer on to now use the computer. We still do paper for some stuff, but that’s one of our big pushes — to implement technology where it can help us, as long as it’s cost effective.
Kocher: My perspective is probably unique. I will speak to my Kiewit experiece, having just left there. Thinking about Heavy Job and David’s comments, my business unit implemented Heavy Job 10 years ago. I was teaching foremen how to tether their cell phone to use as a dial-up connection for sending in time cards. At the time, a lot of our foremen didn’t know how to use a computer. For the most part, I think the industry and technology are past those early adopter challenges.
Over the past five or so years, I’ve seen Kiewit rebuild their whole technology platform to become an industry leader. One small example is daily equipment inspections. Seems simple enough but when you think about it, the old way of doing business needed to change. Too many pieces of paper were touching too many hands, so an app was developed.
Assume a piece of equipment has a broken mirror. The operator snaps a picture of it and notes it in the daily inspection. Within minutes, the maintenance manager gets an alert for the specific piece of the equipment and orders parts. Parts come in and the ticket is assigned to a mechanic. The mechanic makes the repair and closes the ticket. This type of innovation is happening every day and it’s making organizations more productive and lowering costs.
Kinning: Excel just works for us. We don’t need all of those fancy bells and whistles. We are small enough that we talk to every one of our guys every morning. I mean, every one of them. We know that stuff. We just want something that’s going to help the projects flow a little bit better but, yeah, if you find that let me know.
As far as grade control and GPS, that’s something we’re getting into now. We kind of resisted the idea for a long time. We’re demoing equipment, and we plan on purchasing the full line of it here, probably in the next year or two.
Utility Contractor: How adaptable are utility owners to the technologies, such as grade control, you use as contractors?
Kinning: If it makes the project cheaper and us more efficient, they’re all for it. I think that’s really the goal of it.
McLaughlin: It’s just all about affordability, I think. We just implemented HCSS two or three years ago because we have an estimator that’s been using Excel for 30 years. I know his spreadsheet, but I’m not efficient enough to bid a job using it. We’re just trying to implement those small procedures right now. We’re just finally implementing electronic payroll. We’re trying to make ourselves efficient on the smaller scale.
Utility Contractor: What about remote operation? We’ve seen manufacturers introduce remotes you can wear around your waist and operate a skid steer from the sidelines.
Lane: I think it will be hard to have that, especially since we work so much on the road and in public areas. You just can’t replace the human awareness. It doesn’t matter.
On the public side also, there are so many people that are unaware of what we’re doing. They might just walk into the site. They might drive around a cone the wrong way. You got to have a person there that can jump off the machine and help.
Utility Contractor: Let’s switch gears and talk about water infrastructure. Are you seeing financing coming in for water work?
Kinning: I think we’re seeing it in the really small towns. We’re a rural area and we see USDA money coming in for some of the smaller towns that maybe don’t have the money available. I think a lot of our work in the bigger cities is still funded by the owner. I don’t think we’re seeing nearly what needs to be there. You just get it however you can.
I often hear the question: What did Flint teach the politicians? I guess it taught them the alternative to replacing the infrastructure. It taught them what can happen if you don’t do this, if you aren’t proactively getting ahead of it.
Utility Contractor: So, do you feel there’s more owner awareness because of Flint?
McLaughlin: We’re personally seeing a lot of it because of the publicity with the city of St. Petersburg, Fla. The city has been all over the national news lately, but it’s more related to sewer. Right now, the city is trying to figure out how they’re going to fund all these infrastructure upgrades. It didn’t seem to be a big deal five to 10 years ago, but now the newspapers are not letting it go unnoticed. They’ve got to figure out ways to pay for all these infrastructure upgrades that they’ve been neglecting for the past 20 to 30 years.
Kocher: My take on water financing is we shouldn’t pay more for a cell phone than we do for water. Most projects are funded through water rates and I don’t see that changing.
Most of the time, water rates are controlled by elected officials. To me, that’s the wrong group of people to make these decisions. Their interests usually aren’t aligned with collecting enough revenue to make sure we take proper care of our water infrastructure. Out of sight, out of mind. Fix leaks when they happen, but neglect the bigger issue and cost of a system on the verge of a disaster. This approach isn’t sustainable and the day of reckoning is coming.
As an industry, we need to do better educating the public about the issue and electing officials with the courage to do something about it.
McLaughlin: Everyone needs to understand that infrastructure is not cheap. Everyone just thinks you turn on the faucet and off you go. You don’t have to upgrade. You don’t see it, so you don’t have to worry about it.
Lane: Everything is fix or failure. I think we’re pretty fortunate, actually, up in the Seattle area, we have a public works trust fund. It’s been great because a lot of the small municipalities can go do projects, then they’re just paying back the trust fund. Unfortunately, our current governor is moving to abolish that. All the money that is paid back into it each year would be redirected to the general budget for Washington state. We are trying to fight it.
If the governor doesn’t succeed with his redirecting of the fund, the public works trust fund that we have is actually pretty nice. We have been pretty fortunate.
Beinhower: We have PENNVEST in Pennsylvania, which is an avenue for money. They flow a significant amount of money into infrastructure. Is it enough? No, but it’s something. It’s a vehicle that helps, especially the smaller towns.
Utility Contractor: Does it seem like larger cities are a little more proactive, where the smaller communities are a little more reactive from a water funding perspective?
Lane: It is not because they don’t want to, but they just don’t know how. They probably haven’t had the training because it’s a small town and they don’t have the tools. There has to be some sort of collaboration between all the districts in a state where the big guys can help out the little ones.
Kinning: Those small towns probably own all of their utilities, so they’re not just worried about water. They are worried about power, sewer and gas systems, too. Whatever is broke, they’ll fix that now.
McLaughlin: It’s also a matter of where that money goes to. A lot of the times we have funding, and it’s like, ‘Okay great, we have this fund that is set up for infrastructure.’ Then all of a sudden five to seven years down the road, it’s going to new libraries and other projects. Yes, we need libraries and parks, but people are not realizing that the sewer system they rely on is 50 years old. However, politicians don’t want to say, ‘oh look, I built that sewer.’ They want to say, ‘look at the parks or the library that I built.’
Beinhower: There are no ribbons to cut with infrastructure.
McLaughlin: Exactly. They don’t want their legacy to be a sewer system. However, the legacy could end up being that the sewer system failed on his watch.
Utility Contractor: Let’s move onto the jobsite and some of the safety issues you guys are dealing with and what you’re seeing. Do you have a safety ambassador? What about a safety program?
Kinning: Our safety manager is my brother, who is half owner of the company. He’s also in charge of production. Safety and production work together, so I like that idea. Ultimately, the superintendents are 100 percent accountable for their crews. They have to be. We can preach all we want, but if the guy that’s telling them what to do isn’t telling them to do it safely, they’re not going to do it.
McLaughlin: The younger generation seems to be more pro-safety. They are not going to take the risks as much as the older generation. I think what we’re seeing now, especially with our company, are a lot of point repairs. We all have to find better methods or accept that the projects are going to cost more. If you want to be safe, it’s going to take longer to do it right.
We have a project going on right now and in 180 ft, we have 35 utilities running perpendicular to us. We’re trying to lay gravity sewer 14-ft deep with 35 utilities, so it requires very slow, methodical excavating.
Kocher: To me, a safe jobsite is all about having the right safety culture. It’s not easy and takes a heartfelt commitment from everyone involved in operations. My slogan is, ‘Nobody Gets Hurt.’ I expect and support our folks taking all the reasonable measures to make sure they go home in the same condition they came in. If a situation doesn’t feel right, let’s stop and find a better way. Each man is looking out for himself and the person next to him. They speak up when they see something.
Kinning: Part of that culture is also making sure that other people will stop them from doing it, and that it’s okay to stop them. That’s a big part of it. If he wants to do it that way, fine, but that’s not the way I would do it.
Beinhower: Last year we did an incentive safety bonus, where we earmarked a pretty substantial amount of money that was divided up among the workforce. They slowly eroded at that money. Your safety has to be each guy policing himself. It can’t be a management forcing the safety on them. It’s got to be them enforcing it on each other.
Utility Contractor: It seems that the workforce shortage has been a hot topic this year. What are your thoughts?
Lane: We have a big issue, of course across the board, with a shortage of qualified workers. I talk with our laborers and operators’ union probably weekly. They are just dying for people to come in. If you know anybody that can hold a shovel and show up to work on time, they will help you get them into the union. We actually started a young professionals committee this year where we’re working with local colleges and the four-year institutions with construction management programs.
There’s a lot of people in high school who don’t want to go to college and they end up in this circle of not knowing what to do. We need good trade programs that attract these people at the high school level.
I was fortunate because my high school had wood shop and auto mechanics shop, so I was exposed early on. There is not much of that anymore. It’s figuring out how to integrate the unions within the schools and start recruiting at a younger level.
McLaughlin: The Suncoast Utility Contractors Association hosts a construction career day where we have around 1,000 to 1,500 high school kids come out for the day. We have around 20 learning labs and some of our rental suppliers bring out equipment and let the students operate the machines.
Some of these kids in school right now don’t want to go to college, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
We need to show them that there’s potential in this industry and you don’t need a college education to make a lot of money. You can make a very good living digging a ditch, and we have started putting a lot of emphasis on that.
Beinhower: Overall, we have a younger workforce. Some of our younger guys who started as laborers have kept in touch with their guidance counselors at their high schools. It was a little outside the box for the high schools, but a lot of them have become more receptive to us coming. They will actually allow us to send one of our younger guys and one of our project managers in to do a presentation for the kids. It’s showing them that this is a career path; it’s not a dead-end anymore.
We also have a mentor program within our company where our younger guys will get partnered up with a senior member and shadow them. Yeah, it cuts into productivity a little bit, but it helps new talent develop those skill sets. We’re trying to get that knowledge out of the older guys that work for us into the younger ones. If they shift crews or focuses, they’ll gravitate to a new mentor.
Kinning: Our chapter in Nebraska is doing a great program where we’ve partnered with ABC and several other construction associations. We are actually reaching out to the high schools with a three-prong approach. We’re hitting the kids, the teachers and the parents. The parents are the most critical part. Kids can want to work in construction, but their parents have to support them with that. You have to remember that those parents are our generation. They are the ones that ruined it for the construction industry because none of our friends wanted to go into construction. How many of you guys had a reason to go into construction? Whether it’s a dad that owned a company or somebody that went though there. There’s a reason that we’re in it but none of our friends did it.
I think the order goes the parents, the teachers, then the kids, in the importance of how to persuade them.
Beinhower: Teachers definitely have that affect too because they’re continuously pushing everybody to go into college.
McLaughlin: It looks better on them and the school. Schools want to say they have a 90 percent college acceptance rate, not 50 because the other 50 percent go dig ditches. It doesn’t look as good.
Kinning: We also do programs where we bring the kids in and let them do some hands-on stuff. The kids love that. If it was just getting the kids to do it, we wouldn’t have an issue at all. The kids get on these mini excavators and the first thing they do is take a selfie and put it on Facebook. They love being seen on this stuff. They think it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever done.
However, then they go home and tell their parents about it and they say ‘No, you’re going to school.’ It’s a real issue. We’re the ones to blame — our generation and the one before us.
Lane: I graduated from WSU, and the tradition used to be that you wore your hard hat at the graduation ceremonies. They stopped letting us wear our hard hats because they didn’t want to have a blue-collar workforce at graduation. Talk about something needing to change.
Kinning: I had an algebra teacher in high school and his big threat was if you didn’t have your homework done, you were either going to wash dishes at Joe’s Diner or dig ditches for the rest of your life. He threatened me with that every day. I wasn’t a good student, and I kept telling him that my dad digs ditches and makes a pretty good living. When we built a new office and had a grand opening, that teacher showed up and I had the joy of giving him a tour. He was really impressed and commented on how nice the office was. I got to turn to him and say, ‘not bad for digging ditches.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Did I ever use that on you?’ I told him he did every day. That is one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done.
Beinhower: I love it.
Kocher: Construction is a great industry in that you don’t have to have a degree to advance. Hard work and positive results take you as far as you want to go.