An influx of government and private money dedicated to broadband is enabling service providers to set ambitious plans to upgrade networks. But many providers are discovering that the critical challenge in this endeavor is building a strong broadband labor pool.
Telco and cable operator workers hired in the 1990s – when many providers last did major network expansions – have retired or will soon retire, taking with them the knowledge and skills required to transform the networks to fiber to the home (FTTH) and DOCSIS 4.0.
Bob Murphy, senior vice president of business services at ATX, says the emphasis on crews for the communications industry has hit a “20-year lull.”
“There was not a dedicated focus on training the workforce,” he says. “It shifted to an IT-centric workforce instead of pure outside- or inside-plant technicians or line workers.”
Even though the U.S. telecom industry will create 850,000 jobs by 2025 according to a coalition of industry associations, Mears, a construction and engineering services firm, sees the lack of a skilled workforce as a potential issue. “There’s going to be a huge demand for the specialized construction that will take place,” says Trent Edwards, president of Mears.
It’s a sunny day in La Grange, Texas, and the sky overhead is clear and blue. We’re at a tranquil piece of land alongside the Colorado River, and although it’s known as the Lazy Q Ranch, today’s guests are hard at work. There are 20 Mears Group employees going through an inventive leadership academy to develop management skills and take their careers to the next level.
Over two separate one-week periods, participants will receive high-level training on business fundamentals, financial management, customer service, communication, and leadership before competing in teams to bid for a mock project.
Vivek Arora and his colleagues created the program to develop future leaders from within. “Our leadership academy is like a mini-MBA but done in the context of our organization,” explains Arora, who is the executive vice president, chief administrative officer, and general counsel. “We’re using it to help people thrive where they are and to see where they can go next.”
Investing in these meaningful workforce development programs is one way Mears can strengthen the company from the inside, and they are a natural fit for Arora, who completed his own MBA at Rice University and graduated from Columbia Law School. He joined Mears’ parent company Quanta Services Inc. as a labor and employment attorney in 2010.
Previously, Arora worked in a large DC-area firm’s labor and employment practice. Now at Mears, he is responsible for several administrative functions that impact 6,500 employees across 9 business units.
Mears brings energy infrastructure engineering, construction, and maintenance services to customers in a wide variety of industries. Doing so requires modern equipment, specialized services, and skilled workers. But project volumes are high and workers are scarce. Robust workforce development initiatives are critical because they enable Mears to attract and retain employees in a competitive landscape.
“The old industry model of recruiting our current employees’ friends and family just won’t cut it in this modern era where projects are bigger and more complex,” Arora says. “We have to develop talent from within and find alternative sources for recruiting and retention so we can build our own competitive advantage.”
The project honored as the 2021 Trenchless Technology Project of the Year for New Installation is one that successfully applied horizontal direction drilling (HDD) to place underground a critical pair of 12,200-ft parallel power cables under the Rappahannock River near White Stone, Virginia – a hot topic and the type of crossing that is recently making national headlines.
Undergrounding telecom/power lines has been a part of HDD’s repertoire for many years but a national spotlight was shown on this particular type of application in August with PG&E’s announcement that it plans to underground 10,000 miles of power lines in northern California. This year’s winning New Installation project was selected prior to this news.
Traditionally, power lines are installed overhead, but this option leaves them vulnerable in times of severe weather and other events such as wildfires — costing owners even more money and time to replace and/or repair. HDD piques owners’ interest as a long-term protection for their investment when looking at environmental, aesthetic and cost factors.
The Greys Point to Rappahannock Station-Rappahannock River Crossing provides a great example of how HDD is utilized in undergrounding power lines. This project installed two parallel power and cable lines, replacing an overhead 115kV line, giving Dominion Energy Virginia (DEV) customers more capacity, as well as protection from potentially future downed lines.
This project was incredibly challenging for the contractor and its engineers designing it, with several issues requiring tremendous planning and teamwork to overcome. These issues included logistical planning, working during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a design that would be least disruptive to the waterway, resulting in the successful undergrounding of the lines; the project also included intricate overboarding and post lay burial of intermediary tie-in sections using a unique jetting machine to maintain the depth of the new lines 10 ft below the river’s bottom without the use of any mechanical dredging.
The project featured the Engineer, Procure and Construct (EPC) delivery process, which requires critical planning and communication to put together a design to install the two 8-in. steel pipe cables, with two fiber-optic cables tethered to each.
“It’s truly an honor for this project to be selected recipient of this year’s Project of the Year,” says JB Brown, Mears senior vice president and project director for this project. “This could not have happened without a lot of dedicated people working together…It’s great to know the industry sees and recognizes what we are doing.”
The year 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Mears Group.
Founded in 1970, Mears today is an industry-leading energy infrastructure solutions provider serving multiple markets that include gas distribution, pipeline and facilities construction, pipeline integrity, horizontal direction drilling (HDD) and Direct Pipe (DP) installations. Mears is also active in the electric transmission and distribution, telecommunications, and water and sewer markets.
As it has for 50 years, Mears’ headquarters remains in the small town of Rosebush, Mich., but it now has locations in 24 other states.
In 1969, Herb Fluharty was a project engineer for Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) in Chicago.
“I had grown up working on pipeline construction for the company my father founded, Welded Construction,” said Fluharty.
Although he was then employed at a large organization, Fluharty recognized and appreciated the challenges of owning a small business. When his father passed away, Fluharty wanted to move back to Rosebush to be closer to his mother and family.
About the same time, a friend started a land surveying and civil engineering business. “He encouraged me to go in that direction,” said Fluharty.
In June 1970, Fluharty, his wife, Chris, and three young children returned to Rosebush where he started a small surveying business. By 1974, the company was serving pipeline clients in central Michigan, and the scope of its services expanded to include machinery, engineering, accounting, repairs and sales.
In 1975 the company was renamed Mears – an acronym using the first letter of each word in its list of provided services – Engineering. It started, and remains, as a family matter, Fluharty owned and operated, and with an extended Mears “family.”
“Remember,” Fluharty said, “we come from Rosebush, Mich., a town of 300; we were family. I had my son, Scot, and nephew, John, who came alongside me early on and have always been essential to Mears’ success. Some would say: ‘Herb could get in the door; John could convince the customer we can do the job; and Scot was left to get it done and make some money doing it.”
Somehow the feeling of “family” has been retained as the company has grown to more than 5,000 employees. It’s clear they are all proud of their company and enjoy working there.
“I believe it stems from respecting and appreciating people as individuals blessed with differing gifts,” Fluharty observed. “I grew up on the pipeline and was exposed to many folks with various talents.
“My father, who was a welder himself, taught us respect for those who did the work. He told me often, ‘Remember, these are the people who really make us our living.’ That, along with, ‘You don’t have to know everything, just bring together those that do,’ has always stuck with me.
“I believe Mears has been blessed with incredible talent, leadership that recognized that, and allows people to do what they are good at.”
What started as a set of unused funds has grown into something much larger at an Isabella County business.
Mears Group Inc. — a fortune-500 company in Rosebush — has had a contributions committee for many years.
In 2012, the five-person committee realized it had un-allocated funds at the end of the year and decided to use that money to help a family in need.
Gary Lynch, program coordinator of the contributions committee, said the group contacted six local schools to see if there was a family that particularly needed help. After that, the group decided to make it a yearly tradition and the Mears Christmas Adopt A-Family program was born.
The program is funded by Mears employees as well as Mears groups. The employees support two luncheons each year and all of the money raised goes to the program.
Lynch said the group “loves” to help others and is lucky to do so.
“Next to family and friends, the next best thing I love about life is helping other people,” he said. “I’m very lucky I work with many people that have the same feeling about helping people.”
In 2013, Mears provided six families with household items and non-perishable food. The schools they worked with included Mt. Pleasant, Rosebush, Clare, Beal City, Harrison, Coleman and Shepherd.
In 2014, the company adopted 15 families from 10 different schools. The additional schools were Farwell, Vestaburg, Montabella and Chippewa Hills.
A year later, the group’s budget increased to $11,000 after two “successful” luncheons. The money allowed them to adopt 22 families in 2015.
Lynch said 2016 has been a “great success” and Mears’ yearly budget is now at $12,400 — which allowed them to adopt 25 families this holiday season.
Mears provides supplies such as soap, towels and wash cloths. They also try and provide a family game or two and one or two toys for each of the children.
To date, Lynch said Mears has donated $16,000 worth of items and has had a total of $39,400 in funding. Lynch said he thinks the program will continue to grow and help more and more families over the years.
“I anticipate that the program will grow at a fairly rapid pace,” he said. “My goal is that we will add a minimum of five families per year for many years to come. This is very exciting.”