February 2019 Vol. 74 No. 2


DCA President Jay Osborn Sees Opportunities for Industry Newcomers

By Jeff Awalt | Executive Editor

By the time Jay Osborn was attending high school in Dodge Center, Minn., there was never any question about the career that lay ahead. His father worked in the underground construction industry, and Jay leaped at the chance to work summers with him until finishing high school and getting his first full-time job at the same distribution contractor in 1978.


With enthusiasm for the work and determination to learn the “family business” from his father and other experienced crew, Osborn rose through the ranks as a fuser, operator and foreman at Donaldson Construction, to supervisor and general manager at Mueller Pipeline. He joined Q3 Contracting in 1999 and remained president after its acquisition by Primoris Services in 2012. He has served as president of Distribution and Transmission for Primoris since January 2015.

The experience Osborn gained along his path from the field to the executive suite has lent valuable perspective to his term as president of the Distribution Contractors Association (DCA), which is redoubling efforts to attract young talent to the industry. Underground Construction met with Osborn near the end of his term to discuss his career success, his longtime involvement in DCA and his outlook for the contracting industry through 2019 and beyond.

UC:  You decided at an early age to carry on a family tradition by making a career in the contracting business. What kind of work were you doing, and why did you want to stick with it?

Osborn:  My dad was in the industry all his life, and I think part of what I liked at first was just being able to go to work with him in the summers when I was out of school - going and hanging out with him. I always had a passion for the equipment and loved the construction industry and distribution business my father was in. I started my career at Donaldson Construction in the small community where I grew up, but most of our work was on distribution projects in the Quad Cities. We had a mixture of plastic and steel pipe going in when I started back in the late ‘70s. There was a lot of steel in the distribution replacement when I got involved, but plastics were coming on more and more.

UC:  As you started work with your father, would you say that mentoring played an important role in your career?

Osborn:  I definitely benefited from the experience and knowledge that other people shared with me throughout my career – and really even before it started, because my father had me riding equipment at a young age on our farm in Dodge Center. I always looked up to him, so I learned a lot more about the construction side early on just because I was able to work and hang out together and talk with him. Once I started getting into management, I learned a lot from Dennis Mueller at MRM (Mueller Pipeliners). I worked for Dennis from 1987 to 1999, and he taught me a lot about running a business, how to manage the financial side of it – things like that. I consider him a mentor, and we still talk a lot.

UC:  What got you get interested in DCA, and how has it contributed to your success?

Osborn:  Well, I guess we can turn back to my father again, because he used to attend DCA conferences, and that’s how I became aware of it. Once I got into the business and then the management side, I started attending all the conferences and quarterly meetings. Eventually, I got on a few of the committees. Safety/Risk was the first one, then the Labor Committee, and finally Government Relations. I chaired the Government Relations Committee for a couple of years at the inception to get it up and running. That committee had actually been in place long before then, but it had just sort of died from lack of interest. This was about the time that (DCA executive vice president) Dennis Kennedy was stepping down and Rob Darden was starting. There were some new tax laws and compliance changes coming, and Rob felt it was important to get the Government Relations Committee going again, so I took on that role to help get it started.

UC:  You’ve witnessed a lot of changes in the industry through the years. Looking back, do any of them stand out?

Osborn:  Some of the most obvious changes have been the techno-logical advances in materials and equipment. I had already been working in the business about 15 years before I got access to my first directional drills in 1992. We were moving from open cut methods and, as I mentioned, to more plastic instead of steel in distribution replacement. But a lot of the change that continues to this day is the increase in rules and regulations, and a lot of this has been driven by incidents that have occurred.

Whenever old infrastructure fails and causes damage, there always seems to be a new rule that comes behind it. That really came into play after the San Bruno explosion, when they found the records weren’t accurate. Utilities are focusing more heavily on compliance, looking at records and systems, and working to manage these processes. There’s definitely more scrutiny that affects how we operate as distribution contractors to support our customers.

There are other issues facing the industry that are still evolving as we work to address them. OQ portability is one of them, and the labor shortage has been another area of major focus for DCA.

UC:  How are those efforts to address the labor shortage going?

Osborn:  The goals of our workforce initiative are to identify needed resources, develop a structure and provide leadership that will lead us to a sustainable workforce in the future. I believe we’re on the right track, but it’s a long-term process, and we need to stay vigilant and apply what we learn as we go.

We’re trying some pilot projects, including our work with SkillsUSA, which has about 400,000 kids involved across the United States. Its goal is to help fill the gap that was created when schools removed shop, industrial arts and those kinds of vocational programs out of the curriculums. We’re working with them to get the message out about career opportunities we have in this industry. We must look at this issue from every direction and make every effort to connect and communicate with young people; DCA is doing that. For example, the DCA is tracking our websites to see if they’re attracting the right people, developing our site to look the way they’d like to see it instead of just the way we might have had it.

A lot of kids in high school get pushed towards going to college, but college is not for everybody, and we’re telling kids that they have another avenue. You can make a very good living in this industry if you want to work with your hands and be a problem-solver. You can go a long way in this business without a college degree. A lot of the entrepreneurial people in this industry come out of high school and succeed because they have a passion for the industry and like what they’re doing. That’s what I did.

UC:  Do you think a young person entering our industry from high school today has as much opportunity for success as when you started?

Osborn:  I think there’s more. It’s moving a lot faster than it has in the past, just because of the demand, and now you’re advancing people to keep pace. That’s not always good because they might not be capturing all the skills they need and may advance a little before their time – they’ve got to learn on the fly. But from a career standpoint, I believe there’s more opportunity in this industry than ever for somebody who really wants to get engaged, who has the right mindset and who cares about the business and the customers.

Now, recognizing that, it’s important for those of us who are experienced in this industry to take responsibility for sharing our knowledge with these young people coming into the business and help them work safely and succeed as they advance.

UC: Attracting workers is one thing, but some people in the industry are saying it’s hard to motivate the so-called Millennials. Do you have any advice to offer them?

Osborn:  At the end of the day, the key to success in this business that I’ve seen is being able to manage the group, understand them, and keep them motivated and focused on what’s important. That takes engagement with the people below you. I think that, especially with this generation, you’ve got to lead by example and, in a sense, be there to serve them in that way. If the people they watch who run these businesses aren’t engaged, then they may not be engaged.

There are good people out there, but they’re just a different generation. You’ve just got to learn how to communicate with them and motivate them. I think part of my success is not that I’m doing anything special, but that I have a lot of passion for the industry and I understand what they must go through because I worked my way up and I’ve done that job, too. You have to knock down barriers where you can, be-cause if they aren’t working with you, they’re working against you, and you can’t win that way.

UC:  How do you think the distribution contracting business will fare through 2019 and the coming years?

Osborn:  I think the outlook is very good. Gas distribution replacement work will continue to be strong through this year, and I don’t see any change in that for quite a while, with the age and condition of infrastructure. New business has also picked up quite a bit. It seems like the main theme is that business is coming back, so the outlook appears to be improving overall.

I think some of the incidents like the one near Boston last year will bring more focus and demand for replacement of aging infrastructure, but addition-al compliance demands along with it. You can pretty much go to work wherever you want if you can find the people, but it’s getting harder to find them and even harder to get them to travel with so much work available in everybody’s backyards.

UC:  What’s next for you?

Osborn:  I’ll continue in the industry for a while but maybe step back in 2019 and remain with Primoris, possibly in a lesser capacity. I’m not sure if “semi- retired” is how I would say it. I can still help support them and stay engaged in the industry and with DCA in the years to come, but I think it’s about time make some room for the new players.

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