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Producer panel offers insights on incoming workforce

By |  April 22, 2020

The aggregate industry is one very much rooted in tradition, with a number of family-owned companies tracing their histories back generations. Although the industry continues to trend older, a new wave of leadership is emerging that doesn’t necessarily operate like those who came before them.

At the 2020 Pit & Quarry Roundtable & Conference, a panel consisting of young producers and contractors dove into this concept. Wm. D. Scepaniak’s John Scepaniak and Turner Mining Group’s Keaton Turner and Thomas Haun served on the panel, exploring how the industry currently goes about its business compared to a generation ago. Topics that were covered included promoting the industry and its businesses, hiring and retaining people, selecting equipment, and successfully serving customers.

The following conversation took place Jan. 15, and it was edited for brevity and clarity.


From left: Turner Mining Group’s Thomas Haun, Wm. D. Scepaniak’s John Scepaniak and Turner Mining Group’s Keaton Turner participated in a panel discussion at the 2020 Pit & Quarry Roundtable & Conference. Photo: PamElla Lee Photography

From left: Turner Mining Group’s Thomas Haun, Wm. D. Scepaniak’s John Scepaniak and Turner Mining Group’s Keaton Turner participated in a panel discussion at the 2020 Pit & Quarry Roundtable & Conference. Photo: PamElla Lee Photography

P&Q: Over the years, we’ve heard statements about the aggregate industry like ‘the industry is behind the times’ or ‘the industry is among the last to adopt and integrate some of the modern tech we use in our everyday lives.’ As younger producers and contractors in an industry that continues to skew older, do you agree with these kinds of sentiments? Does the industry need to ‘turn the page,’ so to speak, on some of its old ways, or is the status quo still OK for aggregate producers and those they do business with?

KEATON TURNER (TURNER MINING GROUP): I didn’t plan on coming into this industry when I was 16. I always grew up liking trucks and excavators, but this industry looks scary from an outsider’s perspective. It looks old. Everyone in here (at the Roundtable) is almost the same age. They all probably think about millennials the same way.
For us, we want to share as much as we can about what we’re doing. We’re super out there with social media, podcasts, LinkedIn, Instagram – all of that. We want people to realize how awesome the industry is. It’s not scary. People don’t die every day. A lot of people think mining is the underground, dirty coal mining thing, and it’s just not.

THOMAS HAUN (TURNER MINING GROUP): When you look at where the industry’s headed, there’s a lot of technology. It will likely change and adjust the labor pool. There is a ton of opportunity. It’s not this scary space. I think it’s our job to drive that impact. I think the industry has the opportunity to attract a lot of folks who are maybe a little untraditional to this space.

JOHN SCEPANIAK (WM. D. SCEPANIAK): I think our approach to customer service for crushing, screening and washing has been and will always stay the same. Honesty over dollars is going to help you in the long run. Things like that are never going to change.

I’ve learned from my father and my cousin. Outwardly, we approach things the same with traditional values – and we always will. But internally when I came on board, I sat down on one of my first days and asked ‘what is our mission and our values?’ They looked at me like I was from Mars. They’re like, ‘what are you talking about?’

You have to understand: We employ less than 100 people, so you could maybe look at us as a mom-and-pop sand and gravel provider. Something like a mission statement wasn’t common terminology at the time.

One of the biggest [generational] differences is our approach to people and hiring. What do we start people out at as a wage? What is the onboarding process like? In the days of old, it was expected for people to show up, do their job and really have no feelings about what they do and why they do it. But as we move into the new era and we bring somebody on, we talk about making an impact with the herd thinning.

Those were ideas that initially met some resistance when I came on board. But we’re doing a good job of changing, and we’re excited for the future.

TURNER: Coming from a family business and leaving the business, I’ll never forget one of the biggest blowups [happened] when it was found out I was posting on Instagram. I would take pictures of our people and our equipment. I would share what we were doing and what was going on. It’s just a generational gap.

Keaton Turner founded Turner Mining Group in 2017. The business is focused on contract mining, overburden removal, crushing and screening, reclamation, drilling and blasting, and specialty activities.Photo: PamElla Lee Photography

Keaton Turner founded Turner Mining Group in 2017. The business is focused on contract mining, overburden removal, crushing and screening, reclamation, drilling and blasting, and specialty activities. Photo: PamElla Lee Photography

Twenty-four months ago, [Turner Mining Group] had seven employees. Today, we’re over 300. All of it came from Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. I don’t think we would even be sitting here if we didn’t share what we were doing.

We could do all of the cool stuff behind the scenes and live in the shadows, but I’m going to just share the real growing pains. We’re really trying to make this [industry] sexy again. We said that when we first started, because there are a whole lot of cool things to share.

One of the reasons why you leave a family business is because it’s family and it is tough. But one of the reasons [I left] was because I saw where the industry was going – and where it really needs to go.

HAUN: I think this industry already has a lot of great people in it, and it has the ability to attract a whole generation of great people into it. I think it’s about the values we all talk about. There’s an opportunity, and to Keaton’s point, as long as we communicate that message, you will attract and connect with folks.

Keaton and I joke around about this labor shortage, but we have 300-some-odd people in the company right now. We have a backlog of 3,000 people who want to join our company. And it’s not because we’re doing anything so magical or different. It’s because we’ve talked about our values and we share them.

P&Q: What other unique things are you guys doing to attract people into your businesses – things that weren’t done a generation ago, or haven’t historically been done in the aggregate industry? And how about keeping people in the business: How does the modern producer successfully make sure his best employees don’t go elsewhere?

SCEPANIAK: No matter what you’re doing, look at your company. You have people who come and go, but you must have a core group of people who live and breathe your company. Look at those people as an example or poster child for how you can be successful within your organization.

We’ve really taken that on throughout the interview process with prospective employees. We’ll make an example of one of our stud guys who’s been with us for 10 years. He’s known us when we were a much smaller company, and here he is now. He doesn’t have a degree, stumbled out of high school, and now he’s making six figures because he paid attention and was willing to learn, ask the right questions and work hard.

I think it’s important to showcase those people and show why you can be successful in your company. Otherwise, what makes you different than going to work for somebody else? I think you need to show prospective employees the path to be successful in your organization, and then the labor [challenges] will take care of themselves.

TURNER: Training is kind of the next step. It’s the tough part. I’ve heard the average age of the miner is 52 years old. It’s very rare to see 18- to 24-year-olds.

For us, it’s easy to get people in the door. It’s a little bit harder to train them. We’ve got a bunch of older, experienced guys. The real challenge for us is retaining people.

Millennials just keep wanting more. As soon as [a millennial] gets some, he wants more. Young people have a problem of patience – I will admit that – so we really we try to make our people the hero of our story.

If you look at any of our social media, you’re going to see equipment. That’s what people are attracted to. You’re also going to see a lot of our people getting their hands dirty – that they’re the ones who are doing the work and getting up at 4 a.m. and going to bed at 9 p.m.

We try to show them off to the industry and their peers. There are a lot of young people who [appreciate] a shout-out on Instagram, so that’s what we try to do. We want to make the people the hero of our story.

P&Q: How is technology helping you guys turn the tide on some of the negative perceptions we touched on? I’m talking technologies that you utilize within the operation (i.e., equipment that elevates comfort for operators; cutting-edge equipment that’s attractive to millennial up-and-comers)?

SCEPANIAK: Technology has helped us quite a bit. It shortens up the training period for somebody to take on a leadership position on a crushing and screening plant, per se – things like the ability to have a touchscreen with live diagnostics that tell you your closed-side setting in real-time. It eliminates years of trial and error and learning things the hard way.

As a company, it’s enabled us to bring somebody up much faster. What used to be a five- to seven-year process of bringing somebody into the industry as an operator could [now] be a two-year process.

Turner Mining Group COO Thomas Haun, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School, joined Turner Mining Group in 2018. Photo: PamElla Lee Photography

Turner Mining Group COO Thomas Haun, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School, joined Turner Mining Group in 2018. Photo: PamElla Lee Photography

HAUN: We have some experienced folks training our younger folks, but training also goes in both directions. We use a lot of back-office software, and everything’s on a phone to run the jobsite. We’ve actually seen a lot of success pairing across the generations because there are different skill sets.

Some of our more experienced folks are just as hungry. They want to learn because they want to keep up with the times and be as relevant as possible. So we’ve seen technology help bridge the generational gap rather than necessarily create a bigger chasm.

P&Q: As you shop around for equipment to purchase, do you find yourself actively looking for built-in technologies, systems or smart features that prior generations did not? From our perspective, it seems like suppliers are driving home these sorts of features when they launch equipment or unveil the latest rendition of their offerings.

TURNER: I’m not going to walk around [ConExpo-Con/Agg] and look at equipment and all of the new features and products that are going to move dirt for me in the same way they did two or three years ago. What I really care about is relationships.

Almost all of the business we do is with top OEMs: Komatsu, Volvo, Cat. We’re doing business because of relationships. Who’s going to be there when the machine goes down? Because it’s going to go down. Who’s going to be the guy to show up on site and get your guys a box of hats? I mean, they’re all so close in price now.

When you talk about going into a new region and looking at Volvo versus Cat, for example, all of the product features are so similar these days. It’s all great equipment, but it’s all going to break. So the differentiating factor for us is the relationship.

SCEPANIAK: For us, working in regions where serviceability is accessible is huge because we expect our machines to break down. It’s inevitable. Being able to have the relationship where we are a priority to the maintenance department and the dealer is very helpful. It helps us with uptime.

P&Q: How about customer-facing technologies? Cemex, for example, now has a digital program (Cemex Go Quarry Link) that’s designed to simplify the product ordering and pickup process. As Cemex’s Graham Hardwick describes: ‘[Customers] are concerned about cycle times, knowing where their trucks are and what products are available.’ So Cemex looks at having a digital program like this as a way to offer customers better service – the kind that allows customers to manage their time and business. Considering this perspective, do you think this kind of digital platform is more of what’s coming? Is it necessary to elevate the level of service aggregate producers and contractors offer? Is a sweeping digital change like this necessary or feasible for the industry’s smaller producers?

HAUN: I think there’s an opportunity for sharing inside the industry. There’s a reason why some are attempting to do that. They believe by sharing that information – because the value proposition is there for their clients – that they’ll get a better relationship with them and, hopefully, they will continue to show some loyalty to them.

I think that’s true for us. We do a lot of information sharing with our clients. You’re partnering with these large producers. They know when our equipment’s down. The information we use internally is also shared externally with them. I think that has helped cement some relationships for us, and I think it will continue to foster good things. I just think the sharing ability of technology – from an information perspective – is probably underutilized. It holds a lot of opportunity for us.

John Scepaniak, project manager at Wm. D. Scepaniak, joined his family company in 2014. He represents the third generation of the family business, which has traditionally operated in states like Minnesota and South Dakota. Photo: PamElla Lee Photography

John Scepaniak, project manager at Wm. D. Scepaniak, joined his family company in 2014. He represents the third generation of the family business, which has traditionally operated in states like Minnesota and South Dakota. Photo: PamElla Lee Photography

SCEPANIAK: Customers don’t always ask for this on the crushing side, but if a customer wants to know how today went, we can tell them. I think it’s important for a customer to know what is going on when they maybe aren’t always able to have representatives on site. It’s offers extra peace of mind for them. Once again, it’s something that they don’t ask for, but we see it as a value-added service that we can provide.

P&Q: The aggregate industry has long been a people business. Do you see it being a people-driven business going forward? What does the future of this industry look like?

TURNER: Well, I’m too young to think short term. I’m thinking through a 30-year window, and I’m betting on America.

I think this is an awesome industry. There are tons of reserves out there. We’ve got to figure out what people think, though. Over the next 10 years, a lot of experience and knowledge is walking out of the industry. So we are super focused on taking that knowledge and putting it in these young, passionate kids’ heads.

A lot of these young kids are super talented. A lot of them want to jump into management roles. But they’ve got to somehow figure out how to listen to the old guys who’ve been there and learned a few things.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: Can you share some insights on what type of technology you plan to go to, or where you see your businesses investing, whether it’s autonomy, artificial intelligence (AI) or big data-type analytics?

TURNER: More than autonomy or AI, I think it’s even more simple for us at work. What keeps me up at night is somebody dying. That’s a huge failure for our business, regardless of how financially profitable we are. So I’m really thinking about proximity sensors on equipment. I would love to see that kind of technology implemented in our business before we think about AI.

SCEPANIAK: This is kind of a whimsical idea, but when I was a child I thought it’d be cool to have a laser rather than a rock crusher and shoot the high wall with them. I don’t think that’s in the near future, though.

What we’re doing on the crushing and screening side is being able to have real-time diagnostics that show us what’s going on. All of the OEMs are doing a tremendous job with implementing that technology or finding it as we go. That’s something I’m very happy to see from a production standpoint.


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