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.
“Owners,” said Sheehan, “are coming around, but often can’t get their projects ready to meet specific windows of opportunity. Then if you get several lined up and the first job slips, that affects the second job and so on until a disaster occurs.”
There are reasons the pipeline industry has never worked throughout the year, he continued. One of the most significant is the weather – rains in the Northeast and the South in winter; cold, snow and ice in the Rockies, High Plains and the Upper Midwest; hurricanes in Gulf states and the East Coast.
“However,” he said, “regulatory agencies comprise the biggest and most immovable obstruction to year round scheduling. Their dates for environmental windows do not change and they are basically inflexible. This will prevent year round work in all applicable areas whether it is big game range, trout streams, raptors, etc.”
Sheehan Pipe Line started continuous scheduling early in 2007 with results that Sheehan describes as having “some” success. The program continued through the winter with three major spreads incorporating nine or 10 separate jobs.
The benefits? It has improved the company’s ability to attract, train and retain workers. Equipment is utilized throughout the year, moving from one job directly to the next, reducing downtime when machines sit idle.
Weather is a factor outside everyone’s control, always posing a risk of delay and interruption. It increases work costs and poses scheduling problems for the next projects.
Do employees like year round scheduling?
“Straight time workers become tired and want time off,” said Sheehan. “There is a lot of turnover, but workers are making a lot of money. Hourly workers go home whenever they feel like it. We need extra sets of support staff to start a new job or finish the old job.”
What lessons were learned over the past year and a half?
“It is possible to stack all the jobs back to back to back, but it takes a tremendous effort to manage all the problems that arise and there is no time left in the day,” said Sheehan. “Large jobs take on a life of their own after a while and not much you can do has any effect. Just hang on and enjoy the ride.”
Based in Tulsa, OK, the Sheehan Pipe Line Construction Co. is described by Sheehan as the oldest and one of the largest pipeline construction contractors in the United States. Capabilities include construction of cross country main lines to 42 inches in diameter, relocation or replacement of existing lines, cleaning and re-coating existing lines, river crossings and pipe take-up.
Sheehan Pipe Line Construction Company, (918) 747-3471, www.sheehanpipeline.com