Scott Dugas didn’t have to lay off any workers from his excavating business when the market for new houses collapsed. But the downturn permanently changed the way he does business.

A decade ago, about 75 percent of jobs for the Yarmouth-based excavator were for residential work; the rest was commercial work. Now, that equation is reversed.

Competition for those jobs is much stiffer, said Dugas, 59. It’s not unusual to compete with at least 20 other companies for a commercial project, compared to two or three bidders on a residential project.

Previously, work orders came from long-term relationships.

“But now, everything is about price,” he said. The stiffer competition squeezes margins, which leaves less money to spend on operating expenses such as upgrading trucks and equipment.

“You end up splitting hairs,” said Dugas.

Plus, commercial work requires a lot more collaboration. “With commercial work you’re always working around sub-contractors’ schedules,” said Dugas. “On a residential job, it’s yours until the foundation is in.”

The number of workers in the business of excavating for homes is 1,603 today, down from 2,164 in 2004, according to the Maine Department of Labor. That lower number has kept companies like Scott Dugas Excavating from jumping on the opportunities that do come along.

“We have a lot more work than we can do,” he said. “We just don’t have enough people.”

Because of the tight labor market, he’s had to work harder than ever to keep his 35 workers. He offers insurance and profit-sharing, but so do his competitors. With so many workers nearing retirement, and so few younger people getting into the trades, he’s having a hard time attracting new workers.

“Go to a construction site and more than 80 percent of the workers on the site are over 50,” he said. “All the kids want to go get jobs where they can press buttons on a computer.”

Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at:

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