In Minnesota, Recruiting and Retaining Workers is Job No. 1

In a tight job market for skilled trades, it’s critical to find young talent and take care of your team

In Minnesota, Recruiting and Retaining Workers is Job No. 1

The Bell family, from left, Jon, Jake, Zach, Chris and Chad, with a Caterpillar 320CL excavator

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Jake Bell: owner-operator, along with my father Jon Bell and my uncle Chad Bell, the founders

Business: Bell Excavating Inc., Stillwater, Minnesota

Age: 36

Services we offer: We do septic installations, design and repair, as well as camera work and line cleaning. We also provide private utility locating. We don’t provide pumping services but we network with a few good pumpers. We refer them and they refer us for installations and repair, which works out well.

Years in the industry: 24. I started helping out in the summers and after school.

Association involvement: I’ve been a member of the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association for about eight years. I’m now on the board of directors, going into my second year. I got involved in 2015 when our company bought out Bill Wolfe Excavating, which had been a member for 20 years.

Benefits of belonging to the association: The big thing for us is networking with other contractors, not only in our area but across the state. We enjoy getting to know these guys, being on a first-name basis with them and having the opportunity to call them with questions. The other main benefit is being able to voice our opinions and be involved in the state rule-making processes.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: We’re doing well right now but we recently had a few rocky years in between executive directors. The last couple years we’ve had a really good team so we’re regrouping and getting our feet back under us. We’re focusing on recruitment and retention. We are also trying to show companies across the state the training and networking benefits we can bring to them.

Our crew includes: My mom Renae Bell does all the office work. Chris Rigney has been with us for 13 years and is our go-to guy for everything. He’s reliable and knowledgeable, wears a lot of different hats and can pretty much do anything. My cousin Zach Bell is our newbie. He graduated from high school, got his CDL and last year came to work for us. It’s been nice to have that breath-of-fresh-air younger guy getting into it because you don’t get a lot of that and we’re all getting older.

Typical day on the job: I take care of getting all the supplies ready for the jobs. I make sure the truck is loaded and ready. Then I’m out with the crew doing installations. If I need to help with a design, look at a job or meet with customers I’ll break free and do that, as my dad prefers to be out in the field running equipment.

The job I’ll never forget: We were putting in a new system for a house on the St. Croix River and they wanted to add sewer for their boathouse. We had to directional-drill down to the boathouse. The only way to get the pipe back up was to float it out into the water so we could get it all strung out. We had 2-inch pipe that was coiled and then we had other pipes so we could pull back the sewer line up to the house. As we got back up the hillside the head on the drill broke so we ended up having to go over a little bit of cliff and dig it up and finish bringing the pipe up manually into the house. But it was a cool job.

My favorite piece of equipment: Our Caterpillar 308 excavator is a jack of all trades. We have various attachments for it and can get it into every job, big or small. I also like our vLocPro3 utility locator (Vivax-Metrotech). It makes our life a lot easier.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: A couple years ago we worked on a very tight site built into a hill. Everything from the tank to the mound was on a slope. To set the tanks we had to load all the dirt onto a dump truck, haul it offsite, then bring it back for the backfill. The mound was 150 yards up a hill so everything had to get pushed up the hill with a dozer. It was a job that you’d think would take two or three days but it ended up taking us five. Everything we thought would be okay, just wasn’t. Looking back, there are a few things I would have done differently. It was just one of those learning experiences we’ll never forget.

Oops, I wish I could take this one back: We had a job for a big equine barn and an adjacent site with a house. We were trying to meet deadlines but with a record amount of rain that year we spent a lot of time waiting for things to dry out. Originally we were the septic contractor but they ended up hiring us to do all the site work and, looking back, I don’t know that a company our size should have taken on the extra work. It would have been fine had the weather cooperated but trying to keep this project on track took us away from everything else we had scheduled and we had to put all our resources into it. It was one we probably should have walked away from.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: Last year I had a customer who was adamant that when I grade their mound out I make a bear shape out of it. I didn’t even attempt it. I knew it was an impossibility and would be hard to maintain with the rain and everything. And I didn’t think the inspector would like it.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: The biggest thing I’ve been working on, especially with our association, is our mentorship program. I feel there’s something broken. You go to school, do your orientation, take a test, find a licensed contractor to be a mentor, and then do 15 installations under the mentor. Some of these experienced guys might do that in a month but somebody new with minimal knowledge of soils, different loading rates, time dosing and alarms, advanced treatment systems, just doesn’t get enough knowledge in that short amount of time, in my opinion. But it’s hard because people are saying we need more people in the industry. I agree, but they do need to be educated and trained properly to do a good job because our wastewater needs to be treated properly.

Best piece of small business advice I’ve heard: When I was 18 and getting started, my dad hired me out to another company. It was a little bigger, 25 guys. The guy I was working for asked me if I planned on taking over someday, and I said I’d like to. He said, “Make sure you take care of your employees, I don’t care how big you get, because your guys are everything. You think you can do it all but you can’t. And keep a good image.” We strive for that. We take care of our guys because without them we wouldn’t be where we are. And we focus on image — show up with clean, tidy equipment that looks good and is well-maintained, along with yourself, because customers definitely notice.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: I was a full-time fireman for three years because I just had to try something else, having done septic work since I was a kid. So, if I didn’t have this, I’d probably pursue that again.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: It’s only going to get busier because there are more developments being put in. Moving forward, it’s going to be a good industry to be in, especially with the technology coming up. We have great systems in place and they only seem to be getting better. And it’s a safe industry to be in. Hopefully we can get more people into it so we can continue to provide good service to customers.  


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