"We've seen a turn in the economy and we've been successful in getting our fair share, so even though margins are still not where we'd like them to be, the backlog is there, which is a good sign for us," he says.

Public/Private Shift

The amount of work coming from the private sector is also starting to look up.

"When things got tough, the work that was still available was public work," Syzdek explains. "There seems to be an upturn in the private work—a lot of new development from the private sector—that's really helped out."

But Chris DeAlmeida, vice president of finance and accounting for Orion Marine Group, sees competitive pressures in the market, particularly in the way companies are pricing.

"That's brought some contract values down a little bit, but as we look out, there's still a lot of good opportunities out there and there's still a lot of projects on the forefront, and that's where we're very pleased to see that private sector come back," he says.

Orion's private-sector revenue had dropped to as little as 15% of its total during one quarter of 2011, but it has rebounded to 44% during the most recent fiscal quarter.

"We've seen a lot more port development and structure development, primarily related to oil and gas and terminal work," DeAlmeida says, noting the firm's work on a channel deepening and expansion project at the La Quinta Channel in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Orion has shifted its focus, turning to cost control and improving price competitiveness, both of which have already helped improve bottom line performance.

And opportunities are out there. About four years ago, Orion was tracking around $4 billion in new project opportunities four to five years out; today, the company is tracking more than $6 billion in opportunities in the marine construction space.

"So while the bid opportunity margins are probably a little bit pressured from what they were back then, there's definitely a lot of volume," DeAlmeida says.

In the public space, funding is also picking up. Many of the projects that The Brandt Co. has pursued over the past few years have been financed or guaranteed by federal, state or local government agencies, says the firm's president, Barry Moore.