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Miller Pipeline and Operating Engineers 324: Distribution, Infrastructure, and Building Careers

From the Summer 2023 Engineers’ News

It’s only 7 a.m., but the sun has already been up for an hour and a half.  The sky is cloudless, and this picturesque stretch of rural Dorr, Michigan is dotted with newly constructed homes and others dating back over a century. They sit alongside fields where the year’s crops are just showing, and the red barn roofs are reflected in the early light.

It is alongside one of these fields that a team is assembling.  Between heavy equipment, a small circle is made by seven team members for Miller Pipeline as they begin their daily huddle, where they discuss the daily agenda and safety protocol.

“You may want to put some spray on around your pants because it’s very likely we’ll have ticks here,” states General Foreman Jeremy Price. “If you need, I have some in the truck.”

The team nods in agreement. They go over the checklist – traffic cones deployed, PPE on and ready, marked utilities – and they note a cable in front of a house that supports a utility pole that will be avoided.

The group is friendly, but serious.  Today, a four-inch, medium-density natural gas distribution pipeline will be extended 880 feet to a nearby intersection.  Once the pipeline extension is completed, the crew will install a new residential gas service.  Up a hill from the road, the house will need the service line brought up from the road and around to the back of the home.

Operating Engineers 324 member and Foreman, Chad Garchow, will be operating the 1250 Vermeer plow. The plow pulls a blade below grade, which is followed by a “bullet” with a diameter slightly larger than the pipe being installed. The bullet pulls the pipe below grade.  It is just one of several pieces of equipment used on site today.

“I’ve got a John Deere backhoe, the 1250 Vermeer (plow), and Vermeer drill to take care of the driveway crossing,” explains Chad. “Then there’s the tool van, a dump truck, and the fusing machine. We’ll plow this (line) in, bore under this driveway, plow to the corner, and then run the service line. That’s our day.”

Today’s work is just one of the hundreds of projects Miller Pipeline will undertake this year.  Founded in 1953, “Miller Pipeline has grown to provide a comprehensive range of pipeline contracting and rehabilitation services for natural gas, liquids, water, and wastewater pipelines,” explains Josh Sargent, Miller Pipeline Regional Vice President of Operations for the Great Lakes Region.

“We have been a leader in building and maintaining America’s infrastructure for 70 years. Our broad knowledge of repair, replacement, and installation techniques enables us to evaluate projects and make recommendations, often resulting in alternative cost-saving solutions. Our workforce comprises highly trained and skilled employees totaling over 4,000 with office locations in over 22 states around the U.S.,” Sargent states.

Operating Engineers 324 Business Representative Jake Cleary, notes that Miller Pipeline has employed more OE324 Operating Engineers than any other pipeline and distribution contractor of late.

“They put our members to work, and it’s a company they like to work for.”

It’s also important to note that many of Miller’s General Foreman in the region, like Price, are members of Operating Engineers 324.  This enables even greater communication between OE324 and Miller. Matt Hallberg (Port Huron), Chad Lowery (Kalkaska), Matt Wilkin (Detroit) and Denny Lambert (Grand Rapids) are also General Foremen for Miller.  Superintendents Dan Brown (Grand Rapids), Jason Tuthill (Detroit) are also OE324 members, and Jereme Webster (Detroit) is a member of Local 18.

Today, there are five Operating Engineers installing the new gas main extension. Tyler Wilson is operating the directional drill. Since joining both Miller Pipeline and Operating Engineers 324 earlier this year, he agrees that he loves what he is doing and whom he is working for.

“Here, there’s so much opportunity to learn other equipment, and really expand on what I know and what I can (operate),” says Wilson. “I love putting gas in – It really is fun. And it’s nice to come to work every day and be happy about it.”

For Chad Garchow, who has been a member of OE324 for 21 years, this rings particularly true.  Chad went into the pipeline industry the day after graduating high school, first as a laborer for a few years and then as an operator.  He has been with Miller Pipeline for 16 years.

“They treat us good. We seem to always get new equipment. We get bonuses, they pay for your work boots,” says Chad. “This is by far the best company that I’ve worked for.”

Not only has this been a great workplace for Garchow, but it has also become a family affair. Joining him on the crew today is his daughter, Gracie Garchow.  Gracie is the drill foreman today, Wilson is running the directional drill underneath the driveway, and her father is operating the plow pulling the line through the right of way. Gracie is walking the path and checking to ensure the drill is at the right depth and progressing correctly, and ensures it lines up when the drill comes through the other side.

Gracie admits that growing up, she hadn’t really considered a career as an Operating Engineer. After high school graduation, she continued her education with classes studying robotics and autonomous equipment, enjoying the hands-on aspect.  What she found she didn’t enjoy was the indoor nature of that industry.

“I like to be hands-on. I don’t want to be stuck at a computer all day or sitting in an office, and I think that that’s kind of where it was going with the engineering part of things,” said Gracie.

That’s when her father suggested she try her hand at working with him.

“He said ‘do you want to come be my laborer? I’ll teach you what to do and we’ll try it.’ So, I came out and watched for a day. I thought ‘yeah, I could see myself doing this every day!”

Gracie started as a laborer, and when the opportunity came to try her hand as a drill operator, she took it.

“She was working with me and laboring with me when an opportunity was made available to run a drill. I said ‘Grace, right there is your opportunity. Maybe you can get into 324,” explains Chad.  “Jeremy asked her ‘do you think you can run it?’ She had never even sat on one before that day, but she jumped on there and 30 minutes later she’s pulling services. Just like that, we’ve got new drill operator.”

Since then, Gracie and Chad work with each other less, as each often finds themselves sent to different projects, particularly since Gracie became a drill foreman. But it’s that continual change she particularly enjoys with the job.

“I like having the variety and going to different places, different people, every day. You’re going to a different crew every day. You’re going to Battle Creek. You’re going to Traverse City or wherever. I like the variety.”

This is the attitude that Miller Pipeline relishes in their employees.

“The excellent service that Miller Pipeline provides for our customers is never accomplished by one or two people. It’s accomplished by our outstanding team of employees who give life to our core values,” says Sargent.

“We seek out individuals whose values align with our core values. That’s the big secret. We’ll take care of the training and development to ensure every team member is successful.  It’s an exciting time to serve such a great company in an ever-growing industry.”

Meanwhile, as crew completed the bore shot under the driveway and installed several hundred feet of the gas main, dry ground conditions cause the plow to struggle. It has been a historically dry Spring in Michigan, and the ground is rock-hard from weeks of drought. With the plow struggling to make progress, Price fires up the backhoe.

Price has been with OE324 for 11 years, and Miller Pipeline for eight.  His father-in-law, Kevin Miniard, has been an Operating Engineers 324 member for 30 years, and inspired Price to enter the trade.

“I started out with Miller as an operator.  I worked for the season and then the following year I was promoted to foreman,” Price explains. “I worked as a foreman for six years and then I was offered the job as the Regional Training Coordinator for the Great Lakes region. I took that and ran that for about a year and then was asked to take the position as general Foreman where I’m at now, covering the Holland and Battle Creek areas.”

Price and Chad Garchow attach a line from the plow to the backhoe, and together begin pulling the line through the dry terrain, often at an angle.  Finally, they reach the intersection where the line will tie into the existing main.  880 feet of new natural gas access has been made available for residents of this street.  As they begin to prepare to run the service line to the house at the top of the hill, Wilson reflects on this part of the job – his favorite.

“This probably seems pretty straightforward,” Wilson says, “but this house here is going to have gas utilities when we leave. That’s kind of cool, you know?”

“I like that we’re building things. I take pride in that. I can drive by something and say, ‘hey, I put that in, I built that.”

Soon, Wilson will start learning additional equipment.  Today, the last team member is a new hire who has been brought in to operate the directional drill.  Cleary sits with him, explaining what Operating Engineers 324 membership means and getting him signed up.

The partnership with OE324 is important to each Operator on site today, as well as to Miller Pipeline itself.

“The partnership is incredibly beneficial because OE324 is adept at staffing our needs and provides excellent training for members that we attract, hire, and retain,” says Sargent. “OE324 is an actual partner who communicates well and represents our industry with the highest standards.  OE324’s values mirror Miller Pipeline’s Core Values, which makes this a seamless partnership.”

Behind the house, the team works together to install the service line back to the street.  The fuser gets the new line attached, and the laborer hand digs with a shovel to prepare the plow.  The newest member, Kyle Cox, works with Gracie to attach the service line before Chad starts the plow.  All of this is done under the approving eye of the homeowner, who has come out to watch.  He is obviously pleased because his home will now join the newly extended natural gas grid.

Chad points out that this is how it often goes in the natural gas distribution world.

“I’ve run main down that road, that road, this road,” he says, pointing around. “I’ll do 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 feet. I’ll run two or three services, then two weeks later I’m on the next road over, extending it.”

It’s common for neighbors down a street where gas lines have been extended to request A gas main extension from their local natural gas utility so they can become part of the grid and enjoy the cost benefits that natural gas offers.  It is why work remains good for veterans like Chad Garchow and Jeremy Price, and why the future is so promising for Gracie Garchow and Tyler Wilson.

“It’s a good time to be in the pipeline industry right now,” says Price.

“These are the ‘good old days.’”