An interview with industrial construction veteran Dominic Spelich
It’s no secret that the construction industry is on the wrong side of a very large productivity gap — we’ve written about it extensively. And while the labor shortage is a huge contributing factor, it’s not necessarily the lack of warm bodies in the field that’s grabbing everyone’s attention. Instead, the knowledge gap looms much larger in the minds of construction industry leaders.
At PlanGrid, we aim to counter much of this fear through construction productivity software both by helping construction companies do more with less and attract potential employees. However, we could never deliver on that mission without the lessons we learn from our most trusted construction veterans. Nothing can replace the value of experience (not that we want to). Instead, we want to champion lean construction by sharing veteran experiences and insights with the construction community.
With that in mind, this is the first in a series of short interviews we’re publishing to highlight significant stories and helpful advice from construction industry experts. Welcome to our Productive Construction Q&A series.
To get started, we sat down with Dominic Spelich, Executive Vice President of Client Services at VEC, a family business which provides electrical, mechanical, fabrication, civil, and low voltage electrical services. After 20 years in various roles with VEC in both the field and the office, he was promoted to EVP of Client Services where he now oversees estimating, business development, drafting and design, and marketing.
His company, VEC, is a pioneer in adopting technology in the field as a competitive differentiator, as well as internal career development programs to train and retain employees. So, he’s a perfect candidate to illuminate how software can help other construction companies address the productivity gap.
During our interview, Dominic Spelich shared how construction productivity software has helped VEC “do more with less” and reduce operational inefficiencies to save them money, win more bids, and more. Check out what he has learned from his decades of championing technology in the construction industry and how it has helped his company throughout the years.
Q: What do you love most about construction?
Spelich: I love the idea of “building” whether it be off of a set of blueprints or a visual build that was created in your mind. It’s the sense of accomplishment when you see the construction project completed.
Q: What’s the biggest change that you’ve seen in the construction industry as a result of technology and software?
Spelich: I think the biggest change that I’ve seen is that it’s helped to alleviate mistakes. The technology we use today enables us to upload drawing changes to our field installation team in real-time, so we can avoid having our guys working off of outdated drawings.
In the past we had three people dedicated to document control and making sure that the field installation team across our numerous projects had the correct set of drawings on site. It was a daunting task and occasionally, mistakes were made. We were wasting a lot of paper and spending a lot of time behind the wheel to make sure that our field team had what they needed.
Now, drawing changes are uploaded to our field teams iPads and they are notified when a revision has been sent. The new drawings are uploaded over the old revisions so that the field has the correct set to work from.
Q: How important is productivity in construction to you and why? What can/should be done to make the industry, and people in it, more productive?
Spelich: Productivity is so critical. We bid our projects based on certain productivity factors and monitor those very closely during a project to make sure that we will finish on time. When we are working on projects with compressed schedules, any slip in productivity can be costly.
I think that more technology that we can place in the hands of our field leaders, the more productive that they can be. I also think that taking the time to sit down and plan out the project is extremely helpful. We’re currently working on a large project that includes the construction of 15 gas metering stations; we were fortunate and had months to plan the job out and it’s paying dividends in terms of our productivity.
Q: How has technology and software changed the job site and how work gets done? Do you see opportunities for technology to improve job site work even more?
Spelich: It’s definitely made a lot of tasks easier. We’re also able to get certain tasks done faster as a result of technology. We’re also a lot more connected with our job sites thanks to cell phones, high speed internet and mobile hot spots. This makes communication a lot easier and a lot faster.
Q: What causes delays on projects, or causes them to go over schedule?
Spelich: There are several reasons why projects can be delayed. Weather is the first one that comes to mind. As much as you try and plan and watch the forecast, sometimes the weather isn’t on your side and can slow down productivity, especially in the winter months. We try and plan for weather as much as we can, but sometimes that freak snowstorm can shut the job down for a few days and cause the schedule to slide.
Sometimes, other trades can cause delays on the project. If we’re working as the electrical contractor on a project with other companies, we all have to work together to complete our respective tasks. Oftentimes that requires relying on those teams to complete their work so that we can go in and complete our electrical installation. If the mechanical team hasn’t finished setting equipment, we have to wait until they’ve completed that task so that we can wire it.
Q: On the VEC website you have a page dedicated to technology and innovation – why? How does the use of technology help VEC’s marketing and perception to partners?
Spelich: Our owner, Rex Ferry, has challenged our team to “Do More with Less”. Using technology plays a huge part in achieving this. We are constantly looking for ways to do our jobs better and more efficiently.
When Rex speaks at industry conferences, other contractors approach him about our use of technology; we’re viewed as leaders in our industry when it comes to using technology to make our job sites more efficient. It’s a great story to tell and to share with our clients.
We’ve had clients tour our facilities and when we sit down with them and explain how we’re leveraging technology to make our projects more efficient, that’s music to their ears. They’re looking for ways to reduce schedule and we’re helping to provide them a way to do that.
Q: Why did you launch VEC University, and what types of training do your field teams receive?
Spelich: We launched VEC U in 2013 and we provide training program that are relevant and results oriented. The training is targeted to specific skills and competencies that our team needs to carry out VEC’s mission and to reach each individual’s goals.
We also have our Field Leadership Academy. This program brings in our up and coming field leaders and provides them training on leadership, professionalism, project planning, execution and project closeout. We began the training in 2016 with a class of 21 field leaders and have a class of ten who are completing the program this year.
Q: What role can/should construction technology companies play in educating the future workforce in construction?
Spelich: By showing future workforce the tools available to them. At the end of the day, construction is still a very manual industry whereas other industries have leveraged their technology a bit more to create different efficiencies. The construction industry is an old-school, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” industry. However, if you can show some of these field foreman who’ve been in the trades for 20+ years how much easier technology can make their daily tasks, you get buy in from them.
Because the future construction workforce has grown up with technology, I don’t think that the buy-in will be the issue; providing them the knowledge to use the technology and making them aware of what’s out there and how it can improve efficiency will be the main challenge.
Q: What’s one of the more challenging aspects of your job?
Spelich: One of the more challenging aspects of my job will be lack of field resources — headcount — available to complete our projects. There is an abundance of work now and upcoming and not as many young adults are applying to be a skilled tradesperson. When I was a younger adult the amount of interest was much more than now.
Q: What was one of the most exciting projects you (or VEC) have ever worked on, and why?
Spelich: Currently we are providing all services (fabrication, civil, electrical and mechanical) on 15 pipeline facilities (meter stations) on one of the largest pipelines every built in the USA. This pipeline spans from WV to Michigan.
Q: What can be done to improve collaboration between the job site and the office? Does technology play a role, need to play more of a role?
Spelich: I think that you do that by keeping the lines of communication open and checking up on our field leaders often. It helps to let them know that they aren’t on an island and that they can reach out to the office for help with small tasks that might take their focus away from the larger goal of project completion. Sometimes they might not be aware of what the office can do to make their jobs easier, so the frequent and consistent communication can help with that.
Technology helps us to keep those lines of communication open and also provides multiple ways of communicating.
Q: What makes people at VEC excited/happy to use technology for work? What would get people more engaged, or make it easier for them to use it?
Spelich: By taking the time to show the team that the technology that we are providing to them will make their jobs easier. When we first introduced our iPads to our field foremen in 2013, there was pushback. These guys were 20+ year electricians, kind of set in their ways. Once we showed them how to use the iPads and field apps, they all say the same thing: they won’t do another project without them.
When we introduce a new piece of technology to our team and can show them the value in utilizing it, and how that will make their jobs easier, that’s how we get their buy-in.
Q: What do you or your team like most about using PlanGrid?
Spelich: PlanGrid is so much more than document control software. We can mark up drawings, overlay drawings on top of one and another and complete red lines within the software. It keeps our project team on the same page, moving in the same direction.
It saves us time printing and delivering new drawing revisions to the job site, and saves us quite a bit of money on paper!
PlanGrid recently released a whole host of new productivity tools to help companies like VEC achieve their dream of doing more with less. Check out what PlanGrid CMO David Cain has to say about the productivity gap and what PlanGrid is doing about it.