Tomorrow Ain’t What it Used to Be

Oct. 27, 2020

I’m writing this in late March where we’re faced with more unknowns about the coronavirus than reliable answers. For the moment the entire planet is in a wait-and-see mode affecting the confidence of project owners to push forward in the face of large uncertainties. Initial financial impacts to this are easy to see, but the promise of Federal grants and loans may serve to limit, delay, or at least obscure the damage. But underlying the financial situation is the fact that every day our projects are shuttered, our capabilities and skills atrophy, even to the point perhaps of encouraging our skilled employees to seek other opportunities, a repeat of what happened in 2008. 

If by the time you're reading this we're still in locked-down mode, the road back will be strewn with boulders and filled with pitfalls beyond relief from the billions—perhaps trillionsof debt-ridden dollars tossed into the breach by governments around the globe. But I'm guessing, admittedly lacking a crystal ball with any more insight than that of my local gopher psychic, that saner heads will have prevailed and we're well on our way to recovery. 

Dealing with Change 

Those present at the 1999 ConExpo might recall the sprinkling of joysticks that elicited amusement and in some cases downright derision from the gallery of hardcore operators who had earned their spurs pitting smoke-belching behemoths against the toughest stuff on the planet. It was "manhandling" in an age in which the term was both descriptive and acceptable…but things were about to change. 

First came variable displacement hydraulic piston pumps offering flexibility and control well beyond that of their gear and centrifugal forebears. In successive leaps, machine control technologies moved rapidly through manual, assisted, and automated stages, arriving at today’s level of control that teeters on the edge of robotic performanceAll that appears lacking is a clear indication to the software developers that there’s a market out there for a suite of tools linking digital site plans to our equipment.

But There’s a Catch 

Contractors have been talking for some time about shortfalls in the construction workforce, particularly experienced equipment operators who know not only how to read a site plan, but also features of the rocks and dirt with which they have to work. In times past, contractors could count on refugees from shrinking military and farming requirements to meet their growing construction needs, but by and large, those channels have dried upToday they find themselves recruiting people from urban backgrounds, many of whom may have never seen, much less worked with dirt.  

Finding and developing good operators is an ongoing challenge, but with the arrival of today’s highly intelligent nearly robotic equipment, this might not be the most critical people challenge we face. Rather, the critical shortfall lies increasingly in the more rarefied realm inhabited by young men and women with engineering degrees dreaming not about exciting careers in moving dirt, but about developing those magic something-or-others that will launch them on the road to becoming overnight billionaires 

So where does this lead us? 

For starters, it’s a question of money that most of us may not have or are not ready to invest in things we can’t see or have difficulty understanding. A good case in point is the still slow adoption of machine control systems that have been out there for more than a decade but struggle to rise above a 25% acceptance level. It’s not that we don’t know about their benefits, of course, we do, but committing to a little box and a few extra doodads take on a different complexion ranked against the day-to-day pressure of such familiar uncertainties of getting paid for work we’ve done, losing bids we’ve counted on, nasty weather, or God-forbid, a pandemic bringing work to a grinding halt while there are still bills to be paid. 

Moreover, there’s the disruption to our business brought about by our unfamiliarity and perhaps negative reaction with the new stuff…the lost time during installation, training requirements for bringing operators and site supervisors up to speedinevitable mistakes during the shakedown period. If those are not enough to get our knees to shake, there’s bound to be some resistance to change by even some of our most devoted employees who may fear their ability to make the transition…and that’s for stuff that’s well-proven. 

So while change is happening all around us, getting a handle on it is a bitch. Doing so is what our subsequent columns will be about.