Every morning begins with a safety meeting, a review of the scope of the job and everyone’s role on the project. If his crew of 6-10 people is working in tight quarters on utilities or drainage, Dustin Akin, operating foreman, will provide more detailed instructions.
His crew has already been carefully selected for the project after assessing their areas of expertise. “I look at their skill sets,” Akin says. Currently, the crews at KLE Construction LLC are assembled for each job, but he indicates that plans are in the works to restructure for permanent crews – except when specialty work is required.
In addition to providing direction for the crew under him, Akin meets with the superintendent or project engineer to discuss progress. “We have a pre-con meeting where we walk through the whole job,” he says. At that time, they set expectations and build a schedule for each phase of the job. “I usually work out a two-week project schedule with the superintendent.”
Among his duties, Akin is responsible for coordinating labor, equipment and materials. “I like to be proactive, so I know where we’re at.” He consults a database of subcontractors for everything from trucking to aggregate, relying on existing resources and relationships to help him complete jobs on time.
“I’m not too proud to admit I don’t know it all,” Akin says. “I lean on more experienced guys, whether it’s my superintendent or a sub; they have the knowledge and experience. That’s key.” However, he has considerable experience himself. As he points out, he can run every piece of equipment on his job sites.
Not just another job
New to KLE in 2019, the 32-year-old has a college degree from Rogers State University and an EMT license. His background wasn’t in heavy equipment and construction, and he admits that he got into it 8-9 years ago for the money. “It started out as just another job. I started running equipment just for a paycheck.” His move to North Dakota from Oklahoma in 2012 was done – you guessed it – “for a paycheck.”
He figured it was good experience. He could earn some money for his family and acquire transferable skills that would be beneficial wherever he went. Only, along the way, something changed, and now, just one year after being hired by KLE, he doesn’t want to go anywhere else. This is the company he wants to work for until his retirement.
The work called to his artistic nature. Akin plays several instruments, draws and paints. He was surprised when he realized the creative aspect of moving dirt. “You’re building something, you’re creating… I watched old blade hands and was in awe. It’s an art.” He still considers a blade the most useful piece of equipment on a jobsite.
Once he was hooked on the industry, he wanted an employer that offered potential for advancement. As a family man, he didn’t want to be on the road, but he’s an ambitious man who “wanted better” than he had found elsewhere.
He found better at KLE, but moving to North Dakota was a hard transition, Akin recalls. “It’s not easy for everyone. Winters are long up here. You have to be adaptable.” He grew up in a big city much further south, and one that is heavily populated. Moving to a small town that doesn’t even have a stoplight was a big change. “You have to drive an hour to get to a Walmart!”
But he soon fell in love with the small community where everyone knows one another and everyone helps each other. It made him feel welcome and was evocative of the family that’s so important to him. “My wife is from Louisiana. We like barbecues, badminton at my in-laws, card nights, and game nights.”
Even though KLE is a growing company that has expanded to multiple locations, like Billings, Akin says the family atmosphere has remained and he knows he’s “not just a number here. I’m looked at as an asset.”
Akin keeps in mind the small community he’s now a part of when he’s working on projects, like the seven miles of highly traveled country road he’s currently regrading. “I want my good name on projects that are done right because I know I’m helping the community and building relationships.” Taking pride in his work, he says he strives to leave things better than he found them.
The road he’s regrading sees heavy farm traffic, so it’s important to produce a reliable result. The processes include a cement treat for stabilization and finishing with Class 13 gravel. “I’d never done cement treat before,” Akin confesses. He learned how to do it from the subs on the project.
A willingness to learn is a critical attribute for this kind of work. “Guys have to be teachable,” Akin observes, “because there’s always stuff to learn.” While he’s still picking up new skills, he’s also happy to teach others what he knows. “I’m training people all the time, whether it’s a new-hire who’s green or an experienced guy who needs coaching.”
When Akin worked in the oil fields and in the mining industry, his role was heavy equipment trainer. “I have a passion for it. The more I can build up the people around me, the more I build myself up.” Besides, he admits, training keeps his own skillset sharp.
The right guy for the job
Although Akin didn’t grow up in the industry – or the area – he discovered a passion for what he does … and where he does it. He looks for that same trait in the people who work with him. “You have to be driven,” he says. “It’s a competitive industry; you have to have a hunger for it.”
The guys in the field work long hours, Akin acknowledges, and it’s hard to shut it off when they go home – even for a guy like him, whose heart is tied to his family and who enjoys playing music or riding his 2015 Victory Magnum, which he calls “wind therapy,” on his time off.
It’s a demanding job that can wear on a person, both mentally and physically. But there are rewards. There’s variety. “Even when you’re doing the same thing, there are different obstacles and challenges,” Akin explains.
At his last job, he says, he built oil pads all day long. “That’s all I did.” At KLE, there’s a different challenge every day. “You’re never doing exactly the same job over and over. It’s constantly evolving, with new equipment, new technology, environmental changes…”
The job offers rewards in the form of opportunity, as well. Akin is moving up the ladder at KLE. In fact, the possibility of doing so was an important aspect of his decision to come here. “Some guys enjoy being operators; the old-school guys specialize on one machine and get very good on it. But I wanted to move up.”
A lot of guys chase the money and jump from company to company in search of it, Akin says. That leads to turn-over in this industry. It’s why loyalty is another characteristic he values. “Invest in your future; invest in who you work for. Don’t always think about your next move. Be all-in on the job you have.”
Loyalty is a two-way street. Akin believes KLE is loyal to its employees, treating them fairly and paying them well. “If you want something better for your life, there are always opportunities here, if you want them.”