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Columbia Business Monthly

Hauling Asphalt: Group pitches the pros of the road construction biz

Aug 02, 2018 02:37PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Chris Haire
Photography ©2018 Brian Dressler/

John Ard knows what the streets of Lexington are like in the middle of the night: Empty, like a ghost town. That fact, coupled with the cooler overnight temperatures, makes his job easier.

Ard is a construction worker—an asphalt paving superintendent with Sloan Construction Company, to be exact.

It wasn’t always like this, the nighttime work, but the 23-year industry veteran likes it. “More and more, we try not to hamper the public,” Ard says. “Ten years ago, there [was] hardly any night work in South Carolina.”

He adds, “I personally like nights because it gives me the opportunity to take care of my personal business in the daytime.”

Two decades ago, Ard started off as a laborer and has steadily worked his way up, taking on a number of positions. And contrary to what you may think, since his job is quite literally on the road, he’s been able to stay close to home.

“I have the option of sleeping at home,” says Ard, who normally works no more than an hour from where he lives. “It’s just during the daytime.”

The paving superintendent is a firm believer in a career in asphalt construction, an industry that pays workers well and gives them the ability to rise in the ranks whether they have a high school diploma or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

“It’s a good way to make a living,” he says. “It’s my work ethic and longevity that have given me an opportunity to make a very good living for my family.”

Ard is among several construction workers who’ve filmed testimonials for a new marketing campaign from the S.C. Asphalt Pavement Association (SCAPA) called Asphalt Works!. Columbia’s Flock and Rally is the creative entity behind the campaign.

Like many other industries, the asphalt paving business is suffering from a significant shortage of workers. The Asphalt Works! campaign hopes to change that.

The marketing effort comes at a particularly important time for asphalt construction: Thanks to the recently passed gas tax, and an ambitious 10-year road work plan from the S.C. Department of Transportation, business is booming.

In July, the first year of the gas-tax era came to an end, and with it, the SCDOT says their 10-year plan to fix the Palmetto's State's roads and bridges is breaking records.

According to a SCDOT report, the cost of current projects is at $3 billion, a figure three times the norm. The Transportation Department also says that I-85 is currently home to $1 billion in projects while another $1 billion in work is set to begin sometime within the next one to two years at Columbia's Malfunction Junction, aka Carolina Crossroads.

Across the state, 51 bridges are undergoing construction, while 70 miles of interstate work has been contracted.

"Our roads and bridges have been neglected for three decades due to a shortfall in funding," says Christy Hall, SCDOT secretary. "Our 10-year plan is the guide we will use to recover and restore the state’s highway system to good levels."

Again, there’s that worker shortage.

“This industry was hit very hard by the recession,” says Ashley Batson, executive director for the SCAPA. Batson points out that the asphalt business has doubled the number of jobs since 2013. “I foresee there are going to be a lot of opportunities and numerous jobs added to this industry.”

Leslie B. Clark, director of South Carolina government relations for the Carolinas Association of General Contractors, says the worker shortage impacts the entire construction industry. She says many workers who lost their jobs during the Great Recession switched to other careers, abandoning the construction business.

With those workers out of the picture, it's been difficult attracting new ones now that the economy has improved. And the reasons are quite simple: The industry is physically demanding.

"It’s hot. It’s cold. It’s weekend work. It’s long hours. It’s the kind of jobs that are not made out for everybody," Clark says. She also notes that the industry also faces a "momma problem"—everybody wants their kids to go to college.

Batson is well aware of the perception problem facing her particular construction niche. “It’s tough work, but it’s very rewarding,” she says. “If you are out paving day in and day out, you become a family, and they’re treated like that by their companies.”

New hires are paid well, Batson says, with the average entry-level job running $11-14 an hour.

According to Flock and Rally, the Asphalt Works! campaign will include TV, radio, billboards, social media, print materials, and a website. The effort will also actively seek out future workers before they enter the full-time labor force by visiting middle and high schools.

“I think it is really going to make a difference,” Batson says.

The Asphalt Works! campaign will start in January.