Changes To Historical Procedure Can Relieve Worker, Equipment Shortage

By Jeff Griffin, Senior Editor | August 2008 Vol. 63 No. 8

The Sheehan Pipe Line Construction Co. has been constructing pipelines for more than 100 years but in today’s market, the company is feeling the effects of a labor shortage. Chief Executive Officer R. David Sheehan, Jr. said the company is having difficulty filling positions at all worker levels, but hardest to find are welders, journeymen, truck drivers, most equipment operator positions including dozers, sidebooms and backhoes, and foremen and bending engineers.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of articles investigating the workforce crisis affecting organizations involved in underground utility construction and rehabilitation. The first article, published in the July issue, presented the current shortage of construction workers from several perspectives and concluded that the energy pipeline industry is one that is most severely affected. While there is no short term solution to magically increase the supply of available labor, one respected pipeline contractor is implementing a plan to minimize the impact of the problem by changing the way work is scheduled.

However, the company hasn't succeeded in the pipeline business for so many years without being innovative and adapting to changing needs and times and is addressing the effects of the labor shortage by modifying the way it schedules projects.

Historically, pipeline construction has been seasonal with down periods between projects. During idle periods, workers leave for other projects, and the shortage of skilled labor is making it increasingly difficult to reassemble workforces needed for the next projects.

With the available supply of workers in the industry inadequate, Sheehan is implementing a plan to eliminate the gap in work time between spreads in order to retain workers from job to job.

The industry's heavy workload promoted the decision to consider the change, explained Sheehan, a member of the fourth generation of the Sheehan family to lead the company.

“With client’s workloads two to three times higher than the norm, there was no way to add more spreads to do the work within the traditional May through October work season," said Sheehan. "There would never be enough tractors or manpower to triple the number of spreads."

Necessity of change

Changing the way things are done in a well established industry has posed several challenges, primarily convincing project owners that a different approach to scheduling could be an effective option.