Winter for us is the silly season when it comes to conferences, trade shows, field days, and site visits. As such, I can count on living out of a suitcase roughly half the time for the next three months. Admittedly, such a schedule is a pain in the tail, all the more so in light of the senseless aggravations imposed by knee-jerk airport security measures…but that’s a story for another day. Luckily, however, the rewards for the time, expense, and effort are many, and in some cases—such as most recently at the 2010 World of Concrete—quite profound.
There I was, climbing in, over, and around pavers, batch plants, dozers, graders, excavators, and backhoe/loaders seeking to understand how networks of sensors, cabling, electronics boxes, and hydraulic units respond to data supplied by remote positioning devices. These in turn provide precise blade, board, or bucket information to displays that assist operators to work with far greater accuracy and confidence than ever before possible.
Gee whizzes and holy cows running rampant around the Las Vegas Convention Center? You betcha! But there, in the thrall of all this wonderful technology, another vision began to form…one that saw these marvelous systems not only in the context of technology, but as part of a continuum involving all the other elements of the effort as well.
It starts with the fact that, despite all the machinery involved, dirtworking is not merely a mechanical exercise. If it were, we could go immediately to robotics and spend our time shuttling back and forth between our favorite fishing hole and bank while legions of little black boxes do all the work. Instead, machine productivity starts with the operator’s underlying knowledge of dirt, without which all the skill in the world at video games doesn’t mean squat. This brings us face-to-face with the human resource element.
Some fundamental changes have been taking place to our entire society ever since the start of World War II when roughly two-thirds of our population was rural. The transformation of so much of our population and production to the wartime effort introduced changes to society that continue to today, one of which is that we are approaching the point where two-thirds of our population is urban. An immediate upshot is that with fewer family-owned-and-operated farms, our access to people who know dirt has dwindled to a trickle over the years. So while there are millions of Game Boy wizards out there, dirtmanship in the US is fast becoming a lost art.
Additionally, as well you know, a decreasing number of those entering the work force (1) have English as their native language, and (2) bring with them cultural and educational backgrounds similar to those of their predecessors. As we’ve pointed out numerous times in the past, while this is surely a challenge, it carries with it the seeds of opportunity.
What machine control systems are great at is making good dirtworkers better and more efficient, but while they can give a novice a hand up, they can’t give him what those with a rural/farming background bring with them their first day on the job. Even less so can they supplant the years of experience enjoyed by those who have grown old in the profession.
So what was the epiphany? Simply that as we emerge from the current downturn, not only must the way we manage jobs be changed, but so, too, must the skill sets of people entering or reentering the workforce. And the key to both lies in education and training.
Of the many aspects of the show, the two that caught my attention were: (1) the enthusiasm of attendees for hands-on training seminars and more specifically the operation of simulators; and (2) the amazing strides that job-site integration practices have made in the last year. I can barely wait to see what CONAGG/CONEXPO has to offer.