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Why Georgia’s aggregate industry has thrived

By |  April 22, 2020
Photo: Scott Dickson

Dickson

Scott Dickson, who serves as vice president and general manager at Hanson Aggregates Southeast, is currently the board president of the Georgia Construction Aggregate Association (GCAA). P&Q caught up with Dickson at the 2020 GCAA Management Workshop & Expo in Atlanta to hear about the Peach State’s bustling economy and get a sense of the greatest issues facing aggregate producers there. The conversation presented here took place Feb. 19 and was edited for brevity and clarity.

How would you characterize the state of the market within Georgia?

The market is excellent. What’s driving a big part of that is the government here at the state level has been business friendly for a number of years. They recognize the strategic value of the Port of Savannah and the Port of Brunswick, so they are making and they continue to plan for investments around increasing the infrastructure capacity for container growth. That turns into rail, roads and bridges.

The state government had the foresight back in 2015 to pass House Bill 170. At the time, it added approximately $800 million to the DOT (Department of Transportation) budget at the state level. That funding has since grown to about $1 billion with increased population growth and people driving more. It’s a huge boost to the DOT’s funding.

What was the market like in Georgia prior to that bill?

I moved here in 2015. But you could see the Atlanta area was already starting to come back because of population growth. Big corporations are coming here. Georgia really is a business-friendly state, and Atlanta is easy to get in and out of – particularly for the European companies – because of its location. It’s a much shorter jump from Atlanta to a European headquarters.

The state has done a phenomenal job promoting the benefits of its infrastructure advantages versus other states.

How about technology companies? What impact are they having on the Georgia economy?

I happen to have a son at Georgia Tech who is in computer engineering. One of the things Georgia does very well is the HOPE Scholarship, which keeps Georgia students in Georgia. There’s a big incentive for students to stay here, go to schools here and develop businesses here. We have a very entrepreneurial culture here, plus you’ve got big companies with money that are willing to make the investments and take advantage of world-class research centers.

Shifting more specifically to the aggregate industry, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in recent years? Are you seeing great change in technology within your own operations?

Hanson Aggregates' Scott Dickson has worked in and around the aggregate industry for nearly 30 years. Photo: Lehigh Hanson

Hanson Aggregates’ Scott Dickson has worked in and around the aggregate industry for nearly 30 years. Photo: Lehigh Hanson

We’re not seeing terribly big differences in crushing technologies. Automation is one pending change, but really the biggest change this industry faces is turnover in experience.

For most of the people managing quarries or in my position, there is a big age group of 50-plus-year-olds. All of the large producers in this area recognize we have to bring in people and give them the experience of managing people and equipment. They only learn that by being in the field.

We see all of the major producers actively recruiting, trying to bring new people to the industry. GCAA supports that need, offering cross-training courses hosted by experienced industry personnel.

Is turnover the top challenge GCAA producer members face? How about at Hanson Aggregates?

It certainly is for Hanson Aggregates. A priority I have every year is bringing three to five new people into our business and growing them so they can be effective managers in five years – not 25 years.

How do you not only effectively bring people into the industry, but keep them in it?

We’re engaged in finding the right recruits for the business, and then mentoring and coaching them along. I’m actively involved in recruiting at Virginia Tech, the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy, and the Colorado School of Mines. We don’t just send HR folks to do that; we take actual operators up there to identify people who will really want to work in our industry.

When I interview, I look for people with a family history in the industry because they tend to have an interest in staying in the industry. There are young people who are interested in our business. If we find the right people, they get excited about the business just like I did when I was 25 years old.

You’ve been in and around the aggregate industry for nearly 30 years now. What originally pulled you in?

I enjoy the people. They’re salt of the earth, hard-working people who put in long hours. What we operate isn’t super sophisticated, but at the same time it’s so rewarding to see a product produced every day and to drive on a road and say: ‘I was involved with this project.’

Looking to the months ahead at GCAA, what other issues do you expect to focus on?

One thing we always have to look at is safety. I’m always surprised when people outside our industry think that mining is a dangerous business. We have to begin to market our industry and make potential employees understand that it is a safe and well-paying industry that people should want to work in. Marketing our industry is something that we as operators don’t think about.

Other topics are around HR issues – for example,  how to keep more people. In some cases, our customers even try to take some of our people away. Ultimately, we’re competing for the same pool of talent that they are.

There needs to be a broader perspective of bringing people to the industry. Once people are in this industry, they move between different producers but they tend to stay within our industry. So we are making the industry better.

We’ve had people leave and find out that it’s worth coming back five years later. They’ve learned new things and brought better lessons back to us from having worked with an operator other than ourselves.

GCAA and the industry are now recruiting at the high school level and having interactions with high schools. We’re looking at local trade schools to give opportunities for summer jobs. We recognize that you cannot just recruit online.

You touched on the mining schools earlier. There are fewer of them today, but we’ve also seen instances in the past where our niche industry loses prospects to other areas of mining. Have we made gains with the mining schools in recent years?

I think the industry associations are working with the different schools to make aggregates more of a desirable opportunity. Coal was a great draw at one time, and at another time oil and gas was big. Both of those are at a bit of a slowdown right now, so we are seeing some really strong candidates come out of the mining schools who are interested in the aggregate industry.

GCAA members are working with the Missouri School of Mines, giving them funding to do research specific to aggregates to get students interested in pursuing a career on the aggregate side. We’ve got to go back and help the schools create projects that draw students to our particular field of mining.

Promoting the industry is arguably something that’s long overdue. It seems like there’s a great opportunity to get in front of this issue and tell the narrative of the aggregate industry from our own lens, no?

For too many years, we as an industry tried to ‘hide behind the berm.’ I think we have to open our doors up and bring people in; let them understand what we do; let them see how a quarry can be reclaimed. It’s something beautiful when it’s done right.

I grew up in Vancouver, (British Columbia): The Butchart Gardens, which are world-class gardens, is a reclaimed limestone quarry that was first started by the plant manager’s wife.

We’ve (Hanson) donated significant land to wildlife habitats after reclaiming sand and gravel operations. I’ve also seen examples of quarries turned into amphitheaters. As an industry, we need to take a different look at end of life for a quarry and engage the community about what that end of life should look like. We should allow the community to be a part of the new development.

With that mindset: We’ve found that by starting a dialogue about potential end use, rather than providing the community ‘the answer,’ has resulted in much more success in greenfielding and expanding.

Are you concerned at all that if the industry does not get out and tell its story that we’re going to reach a crisis point where we do not have the necessary construction materials readily available?

It’s absolutely a problem. California is an example of that today. A significant portion of its reserves are coming down out of Canada because it’s so difficult to permit reserves in California. That regulatory environment is probably only going to continue to become more restrictive. That means we have to adapt and make sure we bring technologies and solutions that work for the environment and for our neighbors.

Kevin Yanik

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is the editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry magazine. Yanik can be reached at 216-706-3724 or kyanik@northcoastmedia.net.

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