Mike and Jemmie Return for Episode 5!

A Public Vs. Private Perspective

While it’s still very important, damage prevention is only one of the many goals of a utility company, and chances are, the people who work for that damage prevention piece, were previously contact locators or excavators. With all that knowledge and experience from the front lines, there’s a lot of potential to make some big moves in reducing damages. Yet we still see utility companies make frustrating decisions when it comes to damage prevention. Mike and Jemmie try to peel back the layers of this problem, and analyze it not only from the perspective of the company, but from the individuals themselves, looking at the interests and hardships they deal with.

Transcript Highlight Below

Mike Parilac: Let’s say we have a hypothetical utility company, and they’re going to have a damage prevention department of seven people. So there’s a manager, two supervisors and four damage prevention liaisons. All seven of them are employed by the utility. And to make it interesting, let’s say it’s a gas and electric utility, so kind of two utilities in one package, right? You have seven people, and their job is to, like you said, reduce damages by 1%, maybe gain a 10 % advantage and efficiency, whatever their stated goals are. 

Okay, so where did these people come from? How long will they be there? Who will take their place when somebody leaves? Now, originally, if we go back to 1980, all those people came from within the utility, because it was probably a fairly new department, right? Today, the odds of maybe five of those seven people being former contract locating people are pretty high. As a side note, there are regulatory personnel where the entire staff is ex-contract locating. 

Where do people go when they want to hire somebody with both locating and damage prevention experience? Well, I don’t know, there are 11,000 or 15 ,000 contract locating people right now in the US. We’ll hire some of them, right, because nobody inside the company anymore has damage prevention or locating experience. We’ve outsourced it for so long. 

Let’s look at that. So you get people coming in, and maybe a majority of those seven people came in from contract locating, but they’re not in a utility. They’re pretty, I don’t want to say, set for life, but they’ve got a nice job. They’re probably not going to and uploading resumes half the day, right?

Jemmie Wang: They’re not working outside when it’s 95 degrees or when it’s 15 degrees. 

Mike Parilac: Right, and think about damage prevention through the staff’s minds. Everybody knows the ground rules. Everybody knows the players are pretty comfortable. So let’s say you’ve got a person that brings up an idea, “Hey, I bet we could be better ambassadors in damage prevention and serve our excavating customers. It’s better if we did things a certain way.” So one person brings this up in a group meeting. What are the odds that idea ever gets anywhere? 

Jemmie Wang: You bring up an excellent point. Let me answer it this way. If I went from the locating company to the utility, and I’ve been there a few years, in your example, because I spent some time at the contract locator. Let’s say I’m 45 years old now, and I’ve been at the utility for five to ten years, and I have a few more years until retirement. What are my goals there? Now, I’m just keeping it real—my goal there first and foremost is to get to retirement, get my pension and not get fired. My second goal is to maybe do a good job, get a promotion or get a pay raise. Okay. Where on that list is helping out excavators in the community? It’s probably not in my top five or ten. I’m just keeping it real. And even in terms of shaking the system up, why am I rocking the boat here? I’m trying to get to retirement.

Myself and others are critical sometimes of the short-sightedness of private equity firms, but this is where someone out of a private equity firm, or a contract locating company owned by a private equity firm, might think differently. Especially as an executive—if I do this, and we increase profits, we increase efficiency and profits by X dollars, and I get a quarter or half of that. It’s worth doing. 

So it’s worth doing, and I’m going to do it, and I’m going to make sure my team does it. I’m going to make sure everyone’s on the same boat. I always try to think about, how do people act? I never think about it in terms of good or bad. I think, what’s in their interest, right? I think what I’ve seen and probably what you’ve seen, is what’s in the interest of many at the utilities, and they’re good people. It has nothing to do with good or evil. It’s what are their incentives and disincentives?

Mike Parilac: Right, and I gave that scenario about today, maybe five of the seven people having come from contract locating, to show you that the way they collectively think isn’t like the utility mindset. Their previous world in contract locating is what gave them their worldview of locating. They’re just now hired at a utility. You’re right they have those interests like retirement or maybe getting a gas supervisor job. We see examples of—this person used to be with SMNP and now she’s running gas construction for this big utility. She saw an opportunity and went. But the point I was trying to make is, that their ideas of locating were formed by the industry, not by the utility. So now the utility, the regulatory, the survey and engineering worlds, take ex-contract locating people because they know locating. But, they’re also importing a pretty high level of comfort with the existing system. 

Jemmie Wang: Yes, they’re importing some more sophistication from the outside. But for these operations people who went from these contract locators, the contract locating business environment and hours and expectations are different, but also higher, at the utilities. So I don’t think there’s a single person who went from a contract locator to a utility who says, “I’m going, because I want to work even harder, and I want to work even more hours with even less upside.”

I know a lot of people who have gone from a contract locator to utilities. I know no one who said that. A lot of them are going because they think, I can’t take this craziness. I can’t take these hours. I can’t take this travel schedule. I can’t take the expectations. I need something more stable. So they go to a utility, right? They’re not going to rock a boat to implement all the changes. They’re going like hey, yeah, this is better. 

Mike Parilac: Let’s just do a short list of things that drive people who locate in the field crazy, things that cause their heart rate to increase, which give them cold sweats at night, and that give them so much stress. Okay, so organization. I’ve got to organize my time because I’ve got a certain amount of workload. And I have interruptions, that again, I don’t know when they’re going to come. I know they’re going to come, but I don’t know when. I’m going to get that emergency ticket. I don’t know when I’m going to get that report of damage, and with any sort of planning that I’ve been doing with my day, I’ll have to be efficient.

It kind of goes out the window when all of a sudden, I have to go somewhere, and I never know when that’s going to happen. So that’s one thing, being on call, having to wake up at two in the morning. Water may break! For locate people, oftentimes it’s kind of bittersweet. I like the extra hours but hate never going to see the kids ball games, because I’m always needed in the field during construction season. That causes a lot of stress.

I tell you one of the biggest issues is, “Hey, I’ve got more tickets than him.” The constant comparison of, “I have to do more than my neighbor.” “Hey, I did your tickets last time that you wanted to go see your kid’s game, and I’m going to ask you now.” So each individual is kind of in a prison of their own that, at least through their eyes, they see it’s an unjust world out there. They’re the ones that are exploited, and they have little control over ticket load, how much time they have to work, or when they’re going to get an emergency or damage. Then on top of that, they’ve got two people that are potentially going to never tell them they do a good job but always tell them when they do a bad job. That’s the excavator, and unfortunately, a lot of times, it’s somebody from the utility that they or their company’s contractor work for. 

So, they have no friends out there. For anybody who is used to all the stress with locating, and now they go into this alternate world where you’re appreciated, you’re part of a team, what you do isn’t wasted and everybody likes you. Wow. What would you rather do? And so here’s this private locating world, I’m not saying it’s perfect, but here’s this private locating world covering a good part of the underground pipes and cables in a market scenario where, hey, priorities get addressed. Your goal and the goal of the person who is hiring you is the same. You have one job until it’s done, and then you go to the next.

That’s a pretty cool model. And again, we’ll just throw that out here for at least a second time. Why don’t we take that model and apply it to public locating?

Jemmie Wang: Because change is hard, and there’s not enough pain yet. But you’re right, it’s a tough job. And I think some of the better locators do try to create that better environment that you described. They form relationships with the key contractors in the area. But, I’d say with the workforce and the areas and contractors, everything’s always in a state of flux. 

It’s hard to have these longer term bonds. I remember, at some of these companies, there are turnover rates of 50, 60, 70, 80 % or higher a year. So, there’s a lot of transitional workforces in many of these places.