Operators are some of the heroes in the civil construction industry—rising early and staying late to do a job that is foundational to building our communities. So what makes the job worthwhile? More importantly, could it be the right career for you?
Finish Operator Ryan Voiles takes a few moments out of his day to answer some questions about a lifetime of work that’s been good to him. Read on to find out if you might land a career sitting in the operator’s seat.
Ryan’s been “tinkering with equipment” since his childhood spent growing up on a farm. “My uncle always had a backhoe and a dozer on his property, and he’d kindly let me learn.” Over the years, Ryan’s mastered just about every piece of iron in the industry.
What happens on a typical day?
“I live in East Tennessee and work near Gallatin,” he explains. Ryan makes the 2.5-hour trip from home to the job site at the beginning of the week, staying with his crew in a nearby hotel.
The 2.5-hour drive isn’t much compared to what jobs for previous companies have required—traveling for 3-4 months at a time and burning the midnight oil. At Southern Site, he comes in on Monday, goes home on Friday. “Sometimes we work through the weekends, but not often.”
On Monday, the crew shows up at the job site at 6:30 AM where they start by discussing what they plan to accomplish for the day.
“Do you do exercises together?” I ask him, “leg lifts?” referencing the safety training videos we’ve all seen.
“Do they help?” he deadpans, and we both laugh.
After that, the crew makes sure everything is fueled up—and they get started!
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m on the dozer,” Ryan says, “but if there’s a shortage of experienced hands, I will jump in to help.”
Midday, everyone stops working to eat lunch. “I usually pack my lunch. I like to sit outside, feel the breeze.”
Lunchtime is also an opportunity for someone to grab seat time in a dozer or an excavator—but only if someone (like Ryan) is willing to show them how to operate the equipment and keep them safe.
“Not everyone has that mentality—that love for teaching, but that’s what’s great about this company, you’re encouraged to teach.”
After lunch, it’s back on the job until the team reaches a stopping place for the day.
When Ryan wraps up, he often stays to give one of the new guys additional lessons on the dozer. “Winding-down time, evening-time, that’s the perfect time of day to give someone the chance to practice.”
Ryan gives directions, then steps off to the side with the dozer’s cab door open, so the operator-in-training can hear when Ryan calls out instructions.
Why do you like operating heavy equipment?
Ryan’s favorite aspect of operating is watching something undergo a dramatic transformation on account of his hard work.
“It’s as if you’re an artist, but instead of a pencil and a piece of paper, you visualize it and draw it out with your machine.”
“Do you like doing that—using the earth as your canvas?” I ask.
“It’s awesome,” Ryan tells me, “You actually get to create slopes or ponds out of raw earth—carving it out just like on a piece of wood.”
“What’s one of the most enjoyable things you’ve created lately?” I ask, and Ryan thinks for a minute.
“You know, now that I’m toward the latter half of my career, I almost exclusively do finish work, so it’s not often I get to see a job go from scratch to the final product. But I did a Walgreens awhile ago, where I got to work on the entire thing from roughing out to laying the blacktop. Seeing it come off the blueprints into reality was extremely satisfying.”
What is a difficult job you’ve worked on?
Recalling a difficult job with another company, he tells me about the precarious conditions,
“We worked for two years on a job where the dam was leaking under the road. We had to work on 6-700-foot high slopes—blasting, digging it out, then blasting again. It was exhausting and nerve-racking.”
It was also difficult for him to be away from his family for long periods, especially when his kids were little.
“I missed my third one being born because I was in El Paso and couldn’t get home. I was torn all to pieces. I have to hand it to my wife, taking care of the kids, cooking, plus working. I never realized how much work it was [raising kids].”
Why Southern Site?
Ryan’s a huge advocate for teaching anyone who wants to learn how to operate equipment. “A lot of companies have the mindset ‘we’ve got our operators’—even if they’re older. They’re not thinking about the future.”
“That’s what makes Southern Site different,” and that’s one of the things Ryan enjoys about Southern Site. “Teaching the young people? I love it. That’s where it’s at.”
Another perk? “Being home every weekend,” Ryan says. “I’m only 2.5 hours away. So I’m there for my family when they need me.”
Are you curious to learn more about being an operator? It’s a job where no two days are ever the same, and you’ll use the earth as your canvas while you hone your craft. It won’t be without some sacrifice, but people all over the world depend on the work you and other operators will do.
If you want to learn more about the Dirt World, read our story at https://southernsitecontractors.com/who-we-are/!
We’re one place that will meet your hunger with opportunity.