Construction is driven by people, not machines

Marcia Doyle
Updated Jul 15, 2017

Construction Workers On Break Legs Feet

Certain themes repeat themselves when we talk to contractors: The 20-hour days to get a construction company started … and to keep it going. The great financial risks for miniscule margins. The inherent joy of building something.

But the most prevalent comment we hear from contractors concerns their people. “We couldn’t do this without the people we have,” they tell us. “Our people make us.” And, “We have a dream team.”

We hear it so often, there can be a tendency on our part to discount it. Yeah, yeah, you’ve got great people. Next.

But construction – at least the kind of construction we talk about in this magazine – is not a sustainable one-person show. While there are many one-man-one-machine starter tales, contractors learn quickly that doing this kind of work by themselves is exhausting, and more important, not as profitable as with a crew. And then there’s the necessary office assistance – many times a spouse. So, the reality is that it’s not just up to one person even at the start.

Growth requires adding people. While machine control systems give excavator operators the ability to easily make on-grade trench bottoms, for example, they don’t take away the need for experienced eyes and hands both inside and outside the cab to finish laying the pipe. “If we’re in a wet situation,” one contractor told us, “my guys know what to do to get the pipe in the ground. Maybe the conditions are so bad we have to backfill the trench and start over. How’s a robot going to know that?”

Our technology stories offer examples of automated construction techniques, but right now these processes still require a human interface to assemble. Back when outsourcing of American jobs was a concern, I made the argument that construction jobs were safe from the then-growing phenomenon. That’s still true. Yes, outsourced labor can prefab modular building segments, but local labor is still needed to create the coherent whole on the jobsite.

The conundrum for many contractors is that sometimes they do wish they could do it themselves. People, being people, are also pains in the butt. The best may question your directions or chafe at your management. They show up, do a good job, but then bitch the whole time they’re doing it. And there’s the newbies who never quite get it right, not to mention the non-performers who show promise at first, but last only a few paychecks. It’s always something.

But underlying all that is a foundational respect among contractors for the people who stand ready at the other end of a Saturday night emergency call. While the word “equipment” is in our title, we know that contractors will always consider their machines a poor second in the asset column when compared with their people.