By Jeff Winke

Subcontractors are a bit like cats. They’re independent and, yes, they do like you but you get the sense that it’s all on their terms. Managing subcontractors requires finesse — a subtle and delicate manner that combines firm control with gentle persuasion. Thus is the challenge when managing the pavement milling subcontractor.

“Communication is key,” stated Tom Chastain, milling product manager with Wirtgen America, located in Antioch, Tennessee. “Having everyone on the same page regarding the project is very important. Making sure the milling contractor does a quality job in the time frame you require is key.

“Granted, issues can occur that can’t be controlled, but you should feel confident the milling contractor will work through the issues quickly. You don’t want to be micro-managing your milling subcontractor’s work. If you don’t need to be around the milling machine, don’t be. Your presence may take the milling crews’ attention away from what they are doing.”

The milling subcontractor needs to be made aware of the project plan and the role they are to play to contribute to the work success. Clearly, they need to share ownership for the project success.

“Knowing what the project is all about helps the milling company understand what machine or machines they will need for the project,” stated Kyle Hammon, technical sales manager with Astec Industries, Chattanooga, Tennessee. “It might be a deep cut that requires a heavier, high horsepower machine. You don’t want to be caught out in the rain with a smaller machine that may not be best fit for the project. This could cause a slow pace, loss of production, and potential damage to their machine.”

You will want to ask the milling subcontractor whether the machine they will be using on the project is able to handle the cut width, cut depth and production levels necessary to effectively complete the work in the given timeframe.

“Milling contractors have usually milled a wide variety of materials at different depths,” Chastain said. “This experience gives them a baseline to go off from. Not to say there isn’t a curveball thrown at them from time to time. Good ones know how to work through challenges.”

Knowing about the technology that the sub will be using and their comfort level with it is key.

“The type of cutter drum and capabilities of the grade and slope control system are important,” Hammon said. “The style of cutter drum will significantly impact the quality of pattern and production rate the machine can achieve. Drums with narrower spacing allow milling machines to achieve a higher grade of longitudinal smoothness in the milled surface, though they will limit the machine in cut depth and production rate. Double-hit drums provide the ability to increase longitudinal smoothness at higher production rates, but they will still be more limited in maximum cut depth compared to a standard drum configuration.

“Depending on project requirements, you would want to verify the machine’s ability to incorporate averaging skis into the grade control system. Some projects require more unique systems such as GPS or 3D systems.”

Knowing the experience level of the sub’s crew is also critical.

“Quality milling companies train their people to a high level,” Chastain said. “You may get a new crew, but this doesn’t mean they are not capable of performing the job at a high level. On the other hand, you may get a very experienced crew that may be able to show you a different way to approach the project, so it achieves higher quality, and saves time.”

Commenting on the experience level of the mill crew, Hammon said: “The crew should have enough experience that they are comfortable safely operating the machine in several different applications. Ideally, they would be familiar with common challenges and performance expectations that accompany various project types.”

To summarize on how best to keep the milling subcontractor cat purring on your behalf Chastain had this to say: “You should have some sort of understanding about the company’s previous work record. Are they available in the timeframe you need them? What does the milling company need from the contractor from a support side; water truck, clean up, etc. Can they give you what you need from a quality and production standpoint? Are they reputable?”

When handled with respect, the milling subcontractor will be integral to completing the project to the quality and performance standard expected.

Jeff Winke is a business and construction writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He can be reached through