Movers and scrapers

Movers and scrapers

“He don’t even look like an operator,” the man in the mesh cap says, his arms folded across his big belly. His companions, similarly clad, nod in agreement. Some poor geek is in the Caterpillar Mini Excavator 303.5 struggling vainly with the front-loading bucket equipped with a moveable “thumb.” His failing mission? To lift a log from the ground in front of him and place it inside a tire lying nearby. The geek scoops up a bucketful of dirt along with one of the logs and dumps it into the tire. Trouble is, the log remains in the bucket, wedged tight. One of the Caterpillar guys comes running over with a sledgehammer, the building trade’s equivalent of a rodeo clown, and beats at the log to free it. The crowd laughs good-naturedly and the geek turns back to the log-into-a-tire problem. My heart beats a little bit faster as I clutch my scorecard. It’s the first annual Construction Rodeo at PVCC and I’m next in line.

I want to be a construction worker when I grow up: Hands-on exhibits like this one attracted folks of all ages to the first annual Construction Rodeo at PVCC.

There are more than 7 million construction workers in the United States (about 900,000 of them are women, represented at this event by the local chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction, or NAWIC). But it’s not enough. With older workers retiring, and little new blood coming in, the industry faces shortages. To help with recruitment, the industry puts on day-long, family fun-fests like this, with corporate booths offering free logoed trinkets, Clydesdale rides for the kids, and the main event—the Construction Rodeo, a competition to test the over-18 set’s skills at doing relatively silly things with manly yellow machines.

Most of the crowd comprises construction workers and small boys, the boys all running around looking at the machines with covetous awe. The men are here on a Saturday to do what some of them spend up to 60 hours doing every week, but there are bragging rights and cash prizes at stake, $100 for the winner in each event, which include the Skid Steer Loader Obstacle Course and something called Backhoe Tennis. “That’s pretty good money for a Saturday,” someone says.

The best operators of machines such as the 420E Backhoe Loader, an $85,000 beast that weighs about 11 and a half tons, are able to maneuver its arm gracefully, their hands fluid and steady on the twin joysticks, the loader arm reaching out to flick a tennis ball off a cone, or deposit a basketball in a laundry basket, delicately, carefully, like King Kong wiping a tear from Fay Wray’s cheek. Such is not the case for your correspondent. The machines buck and clank at my touch, like something violently short-circuiting. The events are timed, and while I bring in times around one or two minutes on the various events (I did especially poorly on the Mini Excavator Thumb Grab, for which I blame my bookish tendencies), the best operators glide, spin, and dance their way to scores in the 30 seconds or under range.

It ain’t pin the tail on the donkey. It’s lift a log from the ground and place it inside a tire. If you can do it, maybe the construction biz is for you.

Young guys outfitted with camo on their caps, knives in their belts, and girlfriends on their arms, queue up with old men in khaki work shirts whose leathered hands raise big cigars to their ruddy faces. They talk about labor. They talk about machines. They complain about their scores, about penalties for things like knocking over a cone. They watch their fellow competitors and harrumph: “I know what I can do, but I do it in the real world.” “I can do things with these machines that no one has ever thought of.” They watch the likes of me make a mockery of their trade and say, “He don’t even look like an operator. Reckon he makes as much an hour as we do?”

The Construction Rodeo is a celebration of the kind of work that pays a little over $20 an hour for the most experienced of the operators (though that’s not counting overtime). It’s also a chance for people like Lissa Weathers, a Special Education graduate student at UVA, to do something way out of the norm. She takes a comparatively long six minutes to carefully pick up the logs and place them in the tires. But her grin is miles wide as her two sons watch. “I could do this all day,” she says. This is exactly what groups like NAWIC, which is hawking hotdogs and barbecue to raise money for construction-training scholarships, want to hear. Eleven-year-old Ryan and 9-year-old Nathan cluster around Lissa’s legs after her triumphant ride on the bucking excavator. I ask Ryan what he thinks of his Construction Cowgirl Mom. “I think it’s hilarious,” he says.

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