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Aaron's Travels

COVID in Construction — What I learned from 30 executives this week.


Written by: Aaron Witt

After spending my entire week on the phone with heavy construction, mining, demolition, and heavy equipment business owners and leaders from over half the US states, I’ve gathered quite a bit of current information on how COVID-19 is affecting our industry.

Some of my conversations were remarkably inspirational, while others were heartbreaking. While every conversation was worthwhile and a privilege, I’m somewhat emotionally exhausted, listening to so much pain and struggle within a world I love dearly.

What I learned — 

No one has any idea what’s going on. No one. While everyone’s somewhat settling into unsettling times, uncertainty is at an all-time high.

I’d say 75% of the contractors I spoke with have seen little disruption. However, there seem to be cracks forming on both coasts.

While most well-run companies are prepared for tough economic times, few are ready for a total shutdown. Even though the federal government and many US states have deemed construction essential, a few, such as WA and PA, have not. The companies in those states are hurting badly, and many have laid their workforces off while they wait for their state governors to lift the restrictions at an unknown date.

A significant concern of contractors who are working amid national “shelter-in-place” orders are the minority of other contractors who could ruin it for the rest by not enacting strict new policies to prevent spread. Since our work is often public and most people are not working, it only takes one paving crew working too closely together to ruin it for everyone. Governors have shut down construction in multiple states after previously declaring it “essential,” so the concern is valid.

RESPONSIBLE contractors are hungry to publicly prove that they can indeed work safely and prevent the spread of COVID-19 while still providing careers for their people and critical infrastructure for the US.

It’s a fascinating struggle between keeping people safe and healthy while keeping people’s paychecks safe and healthy. Where’s the line between risking their health and safety with COVID-19 versus risking their ability to feed their families? No one knows.

I’ve seen many people claim that not shutting down infrastructure projects is irresponsible and is driven by wealthy executives who only care about profit. With those in the BuildWitt Partnership, that’s completely false. Our group of leaders wants to keep projects going to ensure they can continue providing for their people whom they love dearly, not themselves.

Fortunately, our industry is already largely socially distanced thanks to working in open outdoor areas, in equipment, etc.

Interestingly, some contractors are busier than ever due to less traffic on public roads. Paving and other road construction that they could typically never complete without shutdowns are going on now.

Contractors are starting to see a delay in lettings, inspections, and permitting. Even though they can work safely, the agencies and people they depend on to verify and enable their work are often not.

As most contractors now have robust measures in place to prevent contact and spread, their primary concern now seems to be money and the new SBA PPP program that the federal government signed last week and banks put into action this week. Everyone’s applying for funds as soon as they’re able to for fear of banks running out of money. Some have already had luck with their local banks, while other banks are still figuring out the application process, causing major confusion.

Contractors are assessing contracts and considering including COVID-19 related delays going forward since it’s now a known risk.

Contractors are struggling to find cleaning supplies and necessary PPE due to shortages. When possible, they’re buying whatever they can find in bulk from whatever supplier can find it. Many are making supplies themselves.

I mentioned having inspirational conversations at the beginning of this note. They came in two forms. Those who are in pain yet are still extraordinarily thankful and optimistic, and those who are on the hunt for new opportunities.

Many of our Partners are in what I call “attack mode.” They’re already seeking out opportunities presented by the challenging times to further their businesses and better provide for their customers and people. It’s incredibly inspiring, and I feel the same way with our company. There are more opportunities today than ever before.

Hopefully, you found some value in this note, and I’ll keep publishing them as I learn more this month!

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