July 2022 Vol. 77 No. 7

Editor's Log

Editor's Log: Another Fine Mess

Robert Carpenter|Editor-in-Chief 

For those of you who might still remember old reruns or films of the famed comedy team Stan Laurel (the skinny one) and Oliver Hardy (the heavy one), you’ll recall the duo was often getting into all kinds of trouble through wild hijinks, misunderstandings, ineptitudes and outright stupidity. None of this made their movies and television shows any less funny, I might add. 

One of their well-known routines was that frequently, when finding themselves in a pickle, Oliver would turn to Stan and state “Well! Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!” to which Stan would blubber some nonsensical reply. Even at my age, it’s been a very long time since I last remember watching reruns and laughing at the ever-suffering duo. 

As I was thinking about composing my July column and reflecting upon the state of the underground infrastructure markets, the first thought springing out of my subconscious was “Well! Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into Joe, et al.” 

As the United States wrestles with some of the worst inflation in the world, the goals for many projects due to be funded by the now famous Infrastructure Bill, will continue to be compromised. Where once we planned to build a mile, now we’ll be settling for three-quarters of a mile as supply chain limitations, huge commodity price increases, lack of a workforce and massive wage inflation eat away at the money train. 

Still, there is a lot of money floating around the sewer, water, stormwater, power and fiber industries right now. Billions have already been assigned with billions more languishing within typical federal and local government red tape and snafus. Funding is slated to be released over a five-year period. 

I continually hear from contractors and owners who are equally frustrated by mixed messages from valued suppliers. COVID slowed everybody down – ranging from projects being processed, to construction and rehabilitation activities. 

Unfortunately, COVID also destroyed much of the market confidence and several companies failed. Many more firms simply went into hibernation and are still blaming COVID for their timid attempts to meet the needs of the underground infrastructure markets. 

For a change, it’s not because they can’t find work – for the most part, projects are now available in abundance. Rather, it’s from well-chronicled supply chain and workforce issues. Manufacturers’ sometimes inability to quickly meet the needs of the customers has become a major issue and source of project delays. 

In a recent conversation with a major East Coast municipal manager, he pointed out that while they expect to receive EPA funding via his state agency in the near future finding manufacturers “who can do more than complain and are willing to work with us to get our supplies and equipment even if it takes a while” has become an unexpected problem. 

I quoted a horizontal directional drilling contractor installing fiber, in my June column, who lamented that “it’s like they don’t want to talk to me because they’re afraid they don’t have what we need, or they don’t want to tell me just how long the wait is going to be.” 

The message I repeatedly hear is contractors and owners want manufacturers to put the welcome mat back out in the front of their business. They understand that supply chain issues remain and probably will until early 2023. 

But now is not the time to withdraw into a shell, count your pennies and wait for things to get better. Your customers need manufacturers willing to work with them through the delays and frustrations to at least develop plans and create innovative solutions for the short term. 

I’ve run across several dealers in larger cities who are taking things into their own hands. Unable to get complete, ready-for-sale supplies and equipment from their OEMs, they are accepting incomplete inventory that’s missing a widget, hose, chip, etc. The dealers are working with local sources to find or customize solutions for the missing pieces so that equipment can be made job-ready and rushed to the job site of a valued customer. 

Bottom line, the COVID excuse for re-establishing within the market doesn’t hold water anymore. And then there are those preferring to just ride along the market paths cautiously, ostensibly concerned about recession. I repeat, the money is there, with or without a recession. 

For the countless underground infrastructure struggles of recent years, the funding tonic can be a huge part of the cure for our industries, but only if manufacturers and contractors work closely with owners, whether they be fiber, power or sewer/water. Owners have to be patient and flexible, but solutions and alternatives will emerge. 

We can only hope we aren’t looking back in five years, when the infrastructure funding bill expires, and lament about what could and should have been as the value of that funding slips away without being fully exploited. 

Let’s not let the year of infrastructure degrade into another summer of miscontent. UC 

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