Preparing the Next Generation

How companies are training millennials for careers in the industry

By Jennifer Strawn

Millennials—the youngest of whom are now college-aged—have been described as lazy, entitled, impatient, and selfish.

Whether or not their reputation rings true, what is not debatable is they currently make up more than 35% of the U.S. workforce and will likely be 50% of all workers by 2020. They currently surpass Generation X in the workplace and outnumber Baby Boomers by population alone.

With the aging workforce, attracting and retaining younger generations like millennials is not only critical for businesses—but to the groundwater industry’s survival.

If you’re lucky, your company has several generations of employees who have grown up working in the water sector.

Ed Renner with E.H. Renner and Sons in Elk River, Minnesota, is a fifth-generation water well system professional who has been around drill rigs most of his life. As a 13-year-old, he spent his summers sweeping the bays in the shop. His dad, Roger Renner, MGWC, would take him on service calls and teach him how to diagnose problems with pumping systems. By the time he was in high school, he worked as a driller’s helper before graduating to a drill operator in his late teens and early 20s.

“Most of my training was hands-on. It was trial and error,” he remembers. “I didn’t have to worry about being fired for making a mistake. It just meant that I could try again and try harder. I had the ability to stick with it and get really good at what I was doing.”

Some firms like National Exploration, Wells & Pumps in Gilbert, Arizona, need to cast a wider net to find good employees, and it can be challenging for companies to find young workers who are willing to work outside for 12-hour days, year-round.

“Our schedule is 14 days on and seven days off, and it’s really hard to find people who are willing to do that,” says John Fowler, safety manager for National. “When it gets really hot in the summertime or really cold in the wintertime, there’s a lot of people who just don’t want to deal with it.”

National often looks for people who grew up on ranches and farms because they’re more likely to be accustomed to doing long hours of physical work outdoors. Then, like many companies, they rely on hands-on training to acclimate them to the drilling industry.

Before new hires are put in the field, National asks them to complete six days of training. This includes training on Occupational Safety and Health Administration procedures as well as internal processes.

Web-Only Article Details Internet Tools for Finding Employees
A complete article in the “Web-Only” section of the Water Well Journal website shares how the Internet is a valuable tool for finding your next employees. Titled “Good Help Hard to Find?” author Lana Straub shares her company’s experience with one of the popular online job databases, Indeed. For one position, her firm got more than 90 applicants in one month. 

Fowler understands smaller companies may not be able to put new workers through six days of formal training, but thinks showing new hires how the company conducts risk assessments and site inspections before putting them in the field is helpful in the long run.

“If we make them understand the safety program for our company before we put them with an experienced crew, our odds of success are a lot higher than if you just hire a bunch of people and throw them out in the field.”

Mentoring the Newcomers

Feedback on the training has been positive—especially from employees who have worked at other drilling companies prior to coming to National. Workers have said they appreciate the additional training, rather than receiving only a handbook before being sent to jobsites.

Millennials appreciate knowing what’s expected of them at work, according to Gallup, which released the report “How Millennials Want to Work and Live.” Younger employees are especially looking for help prioritizing their work. They’re happier and more productive when they not only know what to do, but the order in which tasks need to be completed.

National addresses this by assigning new workers to an experienced crew with a driller and lead hand. They’re not wandering around the jobsite like a trainee, though.

“They’re given responsibilities and have a job to do,” Fowler says. “But the drillers and lead hand keep an eye on them. It’s one of those things where you can’t really acclimate them until they’re out in the field. You can do a lot of prep work and build a good foundation, but really the rubber meets the road when they walk out on the drill site for the first time.”

E.H. Renner and Sons also pairs new employees with more experienced workers—usually someone with five to 10 years in the industry.

“We don’t like to pair them up with guys who have been here for a very long time because those guys don’t always like being paired up with the new guy right off the bat,” Renner says. “There is such a thing as an old cranky well driller.”

Finding the drillers who like teaching and are willing to train is often critical to how successful a new hire will become in the future.

“Sometimes if you put (a new employee) with the wrong person from the start, they get run off,” Fowler says. “They get a sour feeling and just quit when they may have otherwise stayed to make a career out of drilling.”

But by pairing a young worker with an experienced crew, the new employees get a feel for the industry and the company because they are shifting to all of the different aspects of the job—whether they’re drilling a well or putting in a water line.

Having opportunities to learn and grow in their jobs like this is important to many millennials, according to Gallup. Millennials don’t want opportunities to grow in their careers to just come from tenure. They want their companies to invest in futures, help them hone their skills, and become the best workers they can be starting on day one.

Renner admits it’s challenging to invest in new employees when it’s so difficult to retain workers. It’s not uncommon for them to leave a few months or even days into employment. Some find better pay, better hours, or a job closer to home.

“We had a 20-year-old guy who left after day two,” Renner says. “I think he went out on a rotary rig for two days, he got muddy, and called in to say he wasn’t coming in again.”

Renner has tossed around the idea of giving new hires signing bonuses on the condition they work at the company for a year so they have an opportunity to truly learn the job.

In Fowler’s experience, he thinks you can usually tell if someone has an aptitude for the work and if they’re going to make drilling a career within about six months.

“Sometimes it’s earlier,” he says. “Sometimes guys come on and in the first couple of hitches you can just tell by the way they work and by the way they ask questions that they’re going to really like it. People usually know pretty quick whether this is the job for them.”

Advice for the Rookies

If you’re a newcomer in the groundwater industry, and you’re hoping to make it a career, there are several steps you can take to be prepared.

For one, you should learn to drive a manual transmission. Then, consider getting your CDL.

“The one thing I have noticed is no one can drive a stick,” Fowler says. “National is putting automatic transmission water trucks into our fleet, but it’s really hard to find people who can drive a stick and really hard to find people who are comfortable even driving a big truck.”

Once you’re on the jobsite, look for opportunities to get hands-on experience. Is it a slow drilling day or is there some downtime? Practice welding; work to develop your skills.

“Whenever you see a supervisor or someone who has a lot more experience, without annoying them, ask questions,” Fowler says. “That’s how you figure out why things are happening. Don’t ask just about what levers to pull, but why they’re doing this. Why are you using this mud? Why is there a lot of torque?”

And don’t forget to listen—and benefit—from those with experience.

“Listen to what others are telling you,” Renner says, “It’s especially important when it comes to what you should and shouldn’t do when it comes to certain jobs. Every one of them can be different.”

If the company offers training, take advantage of it. It all comes down to taking it upon yourself to make the most of the opportunities given to you.

“If you just sit back and expect things to happen, then it’s probably not going to end well,” Fowler says. “You’ve got to take responsibility for yourself and take some initiative and try to learn as much as you can.”

But don’t get ahead of yourself.

“Don’t worry about when you’re going to become the lead hand,” he adds. “If you spend all of your time looking at the driller and figuring out how to become a driller, you’re not going to do your job well.”

Instead, stay focused on the job you have and doing it the best you can. The next step may come sooner than you think.

“The most important thing is you focus on doing your job as best you can and everything else will come naturally,” Fowler says.

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While it can be challenging to hire and retain young workers, there is good news for firms in the groundwater industry. Millennials are looking to make an impact through their work and connect with their company’s mission, Gallup found. And if there’s one thing industry veterans can attest to, there’s nothing more rewarding than providing good, clean water.


Jennifer Strawn was the associate editor of Water Well Journal from 2004 to 2007. She is currently in the internal communications department at Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at strawnj2@gmail.com.

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