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Times & Trends: Learning to Make Beautiful Music Together

March 6, 2017
When everything goes well on a construction project, it’s a well-orchestrated symphony.

You can already hear the sound of pile drivers banging away in granite construction pits throughout U.S. cities as they pound steel supports deep into the earth for new office towers, and the rat-a-tat-tat of homebuilders hammering nails into lumber for new houses.

While construction economists are united in their forecasts for a solid year of construction, particularly in the commercial, office and single-family home markets, Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors, Arlington, VA, said in a recent press release that a shortage of workers is a big concern for contractors, and that AGC surveys show nearly three-quarters of contractors are having a hard time filling positions. Surveys within the electrical construction market find the same thing, even as electrical contractor employment has been comfortably over 800,000 for months, a level that signifies a healthy job climate.

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for apprentices, helpers and other new employees on construction sites. I used to work construction jobs during college summers — three years as a helper for a test boring and drilling company and one summer sweeping up sawdust for a hilarious band of Estonian carpenters. I also worked for a year at the Montgomery County Vo-Tech in Willow Grove, PA, doing public relations for the school while writing my master’s thesis on high school students’ attitudes toward vocational education.

I spent a summer on an offshore drilling rig off the New Hampshire coast, collecting core samples for the ill-fated Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. Another summer, I lived in a cabin on the banks of the Maine’s Allagash River near the Canadian border while drilling for potential deposits of aggregate for the proposed Dickey-Lincoln Dam. I also worked for a day inside a 12-foot diameter water supply pipe in New York’s Catskill Mountains, helping a driller do test borings into the ancient pipe’s walls to check if it was still strong enough to continue carrying water from an upstate New York reservoir to the Big Apple. I remember thinking that if someone turned the water back on too soon, I would come out of a tap in the Bronx.

Working on these construction jobs, even if it was just sweeping up sawdust, pulling up drilling pipe or making coffee runs, gave me an appreciation for all construction projects big and small.

I learned that construction projects are like symphonies and that for them to come together, everyone in the orchestra has to do their job. The architects and engineers must provide blueprints and specifications for the safe and cost-effective projects that owners or investors expect. Construction foremen must take those designs and make the visions realities by managing teams of contractors on job-sites, sometimes engineering on the fly, and always dealing with the dozens of unforeseen obstacles that invariably creep up every day.

Distributors, reps and manufacturers are all important players in the orchestra, too, and they need to excel at their traditional roles of providing quality products at a fair price and getting them to the job site on-time, and being there 24/7 when something goes off the rails. When it all goes well, it sounds like beautiful music.