NGWA’s 73rd president will concentrate his efforts on workforce development training and Association’s new cloud-based business management software system.
By Mike Price
Some view problem solving as burdensome, but that notion doesn’t connect in the mind of David Traut, MGWC, CVCLD.
Instead, the vice president of Traut Companies in St. Joseph, Minnesota, arrives each morning anticipating the fun to come in solving water challenges. Weekly phone calls that might consume a half-day may mean the person becomes a new customer or may not.
“My goal isn’t to sell them something. My goal is to share solutions,” says the 66-year-old Traut, “and if we’re part of the solution, that’s great. If we’re not, at least we basically educated them on what their choices are, so we’re a problem-solving company. That’s what we are.”
The National Ground Water Association and its nearly 10,100 members will benefit from Traut’s desire to find solutions when he becomes the 2024 president at Groundwater Week 2023, December 5-7 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In short order, the 73rd president of NGWA and eighth to hail from Minnesota wants to move the industry forward through General Drilling Prep, formerly Drilling Basics Online, and the Association’s new cloud-based business management software system (NGWA Business PRO at ngwabusinesspro.com and featured here).
Both initiatives involve technology, looking to the future, and seek to remedy the groundwater industry’s top concern: Recruiting, training, and retaining the next generation of professionals.
“It’s [technology] that will get the younger generation engaged,” Traut says, “because I have many younger people who work for me, and it amazes me how they problem solve. I’ll throw them a problem, and of course the answer is somewhere in their phone. We need to make sure the information is available so they can access that when they encounter the need.
“I believe the younger generation doesn’t want to be an apprentice there and work for five years before they’re considered competent enough to actually grab the levers and go to town and get a feeling of accomplishment. The learning curve needs to be much quicker.”
Traut will lean on what he has learned (attention to detail) from 2023 NGWA President Jason House, LG, PG, and other past presidents like Merritt Partridge.
Partridge, who served during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, taught Traut to avoid dragging out a decision in a meeting. He promoted moving on to the next agenda item, if possible, which feeds into Traut’s affinity for problem solving.
“One of the most frustrating things for me is to leave a meeting and we have no solution or decision,” he admits.
House, who will conclude his presidency as just the second member from the Scientists and Engineers Section to serve as president, notes that the no-nonsense, down-to-earth Traut can distill information into a thoughtful response with a clear path forward.
“He is not prone to rash decisions,” House observes, “and I know that he always has the best interest of NGWA in mind when proposing a course of action.”
In the office, Traut likes to remind his department managers that there isn’t anything they can’t do. They can either find a solution or refer the person to someone else who can help.
Traut has recently been using his decades of experience working in Minnesota and 22 other states to assist drillers in the Caribbean. He mostly communicates via email now that he has spent time both in-person and in phone conversations tackling how to develop their open-hole rock wells. Traut explained that the fractured rock caverns needed extensive development to remove what turned out to be truckloads of rocks, rubble, and sand to make a successful clean well.
But where the drillers struggled the most was when screening a well in fine sand needed to be installed. Traut says they lacked the understanding of selecting the proper slot sizes and correct sized filter pack. In addition, lacking a good supply chain, sometimes the options were limited.
“I enjoy helping the driller solve his problems,” says Traut, who notes New Zealand as the farthest phone call he’s taken to assist someone. “I want to help him be successful.”
Recruiting and Training the Next Generation
Traut has worked in the groundwater industry since 1977 and is at the point in his career where he wants to feel content about the next generation of professionals.
He has friends who work in the HVAC industry which he believes is ahead of the water well industry when using online platforms. That’s part of the reason he is devoting his time and energy to General Drilling Prep and NGWA Business PRO, which is synched with QuickBooks and exclusively developed for any size water well business by NGWA’s Board of Directors.
“The drilling industry needs to be aware and willing to learn new and more efficient processes going forward because there is a lot of opportunity,” Traut says. “It’s a great industry and we want to be prepared. If we give the proper training to the people coming up behind us, the industry will be in good hands.
“I’m concerned that some aren’t looking at the future. Ask yourself this question: What’s my business going to look like 10 years from now? Looking at how we train people will be a huge thing moving forward.”
While Traut is pleased to see trade school enrollment on the rise in the United States, he believes many don’t think they’re qualified for the water well industry because they’re afraid of what might be in it. His company has created short recruitment videos showing what drilling and pump crews do to dispel preconceived ideas about the industry.
“We’re going to need to reach out and figure out creative ways to get the interest of the younger generation involved,” he shares. “Keep in mind we are in a visual learning world because of the internet.”
A leading question that he mulls over is how the industry can compress the timeline of a new hire to get the safety education and drilling or pump basics they need to be confident and feel they’re part of a company’s solution. He doesn’t have a quick answer as of now.
Meanwhile, Traut’s mind drifts to new technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and how it might be adopted in the groundwater industry. AI is currently being used in the mining industry for remote, redundant work.
Traut thinks this technology could trickle down to the groundwater industry where repetitive work involved in geothermal drilling, for example, is done by AI so the person can do something more critical.
“I don’t know what it’ll look like, but the human labor factor will change over time, the days of standing on a drill rig stand at 40 below 0 in the middle of North Dakota probably won’t happen anymore because the drill rig can be set up and I can probably run it remotely,” he suggests.
“We need to take the labor element out of it because the next generation of drilling contractors are going to probably require us to look at how we do jobs differently than we do today.
“I would love to be able to sit at my desk, watch my computer, and help interactively work with a young driller who is in the field, and I can actually be interactive with his project in real time and coach him and train him. I think we’re going to see that.”
Traut Companies, led by Traut and his cousin, Mark Traut, have grown from 45 employees in the last 10 years to more than 75 today. While growth wasn’t their objective but rather satisfying customer needs, the company has found these three strategies work best with recruitment:
- Post videos of what the crews are doing at a jobsite on social media. This can give the person a look at what they might do.“A static picture advertisement is fine, but with the candidate having so many options, they are going to be drawn to what spikes their interest, and a video can help that,” he says.
- Traut Companies splits a recruiting fee between the new candidate and the current employee who refers them.
- Be continually aware and look for tradespeople who are currently working around you and ask them if they are happy doing what they are doing.“Some just need to have a conversation as to what type of work makes them happy,” he says.
“I wish I could share a silver bullet solution to this hiring problem,” he says. “We find ourselves in an environment never before experienced in the trades. We are competing not only with the drilling company down the street for employees but rather we are competing with all the trades and also governmental laborer job positions.”
Eye on Smart Water Policies
Elected to the NGWA Contractors Section Board of Directors in 2014, Traut has served on various committees since then and most recently chaired the Government Affairs Committee.
The 2023 NGWA Smart Water Policies Fly-In in Washington, D.C., saw Traut and others lead the Association in requesting the following:
- Support for the Healthy H2O Act to provide grants to private well owners to purchase point-of-entry (POE) water treatment equipment where contaminated water exists.
- Fully fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture water systems grant program at $20 million for fiscal year 2024.
- Fully fund the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Rural Water Technical Assistance program, which supports communities to identify water challenges, build capacity, and develop application materials to access water infrastructure funding.
- Urge the EPA to fully implement the Water Supply Cost Savings Act, which provides small communities across the nation with critical information on the use of water wells and water well systems to deliver high quality, affordable drinking water.
Directly affecting NGWA, Traut sees the Association working on these initiatives and others in 2024:
- Continue to support the TRUCKS Act, which would allow states to issue a new “Small Business Restricted CDL” so Entry-Level Driver Training (ELDT) requirements would not affect small businesses with nine CDLs or less.
- Workforce development programs like Tomorrow’s Workforce Coalition, a new alliance created to support the passage of the Freedom to Invest in Tomorrow’s Workforce Act. This bipartisan bill would expand qualifying expenses for 529 college saving plans to include postsecondary training and credentialing programs.
- Managed aquifer recharge (MAR) and stormwater recharge programs.
Traut, who served as president of the Minnesota Water Well Association in 2007, worked alongside fellow Minnesotan and NGWA Past President David Henrich, CWD/PI, CVCLD, at the state level. He appreciated Henrich’s energy and creative methods in handling legislative issues that often led to positive outcomes.
Henrich lauds Traut’s innovative spirit, no-fail attitude, and curiosity to explore opportunities to improve the industry.
“Dave is not content that we need to keep doing things the way we do things because that’s the way we have done things,” Henrich says. “He has a way of bringing bigger issues into focus so we can clearly communicate sometimes complex topics to our audiences.
“Getting to know Dave has been one of the true privileges of my career and to work with him on several interesting industry initiatives and getting to know him on a personal level as well.”
As the eighth NGWA president from Minnesota, Traut believes working in a state that has strong water well regulations have led to so many to serve the Association. It’s also prepared Traut and previous NGWA presidents from Minnesota to take on the Association’s federal initiatives.
“Every time I talk to Dave, I’m more impressed with not only his experience and the things that he’s done in his own business but his vast ability to see between the lines to a resolution in issues,” says NGWA Board Director Buddy Sebastian.
“He’s not quick to judge. He’s very good at finding the holes in a situation, meaning he doesn’t look at it through rose-colored glasses. He sees the problems, brings them up; is it going to be a big problem or a small problem? And is it something we can handle, or do we need to address it now? I think he’s going to be a great leader.”
Water Treatment and Sonic Drilling
Traut installed water treatment and thermos-store heat reclaiming refrigerant equipment for large dairies at the beginning of his career. This groomed him to start a water treatment division at his uncle’s water well contracting business that eventually became Traut Companies.
“I think one of the great opportunities in the drilling industry is water treatment,” says Traut, who grew up on a hog and dairy farm with nine siblings in Sartell, Minnesota. “Water is going to get worse quality over time. As water quality relates to health standards, we continually need to raise the water quality bar that our customers appreciate and demand. Cleaning water is an opportunity.
“There is a very low investment for any drilling contractor to get into water treatment. They just need to basically learn the industry of water treatment which is very doable. It’s a short timeline to be up to speed.”
Traut, who was interviewed by Water Well Journal in its April 2017 issue about tips on offering water treatment, says he’s surprised more drillers don’t do it automatically because it’s a “no-brainer.”
His company currently has five sonic drilling rigs, and it tries to use them whenever possible when dealing with perand polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) because they minimize the spoils quantity and water generated. Thus, the drilling method allows the problem to be more easily contained.
“If you’re drilling in a PFAS area, pretty much anything that comes to the surface is going to have to be handled and dealt with in a much different fashion because knowing how PFAS works,” he says, “100 percent of it is going to have to be treated, cleaned, and properly disposed of.
“You don’t bring it to the surface and then let it run down the hillside somewhere. It’s got to be pretty much 100 percent treated on site, so you’re going to have to separate the drill mud from the water, you’re going to have to separate the PFAS from the water before you release anything. It gets to be complex but doable.”
Traut, whose first sonic rig was a 1998 Versa-Sonic, believes if pumping in impacted water areas where PFAS is located, shallow aquifers should be considered first.
“The human race made a mess of the shallow waters very quickly,” he says. “The old school of thought is ‘Well, no problem if the shallow water is contaminated. . . . No problem, I’ll just drill deeper and pull my water from a deeper aquifer.’ That’s a short-term fix but a long-term problem in my view.”
Traut, who likes complicated projects that make him favor the sonic and dual rotary drilling methods, advises anyone interested in running a sonic rig to do their homework and learn from successful contractors.
“Sonic tooling is costly and specialized,” he says. “I can speak from experience that going home at the end of the day with my tools broke off downhole and knowing if I don’t figure out how to get them recovered, I’m out $100,000 worth of tooling. That’s a phone call to my insurance company I don’t want to make!”
As the groundwater industry needs more mentors to share their decades of experience and knowledge with the next generation, Traut is on board. His management style is to teach, learn, and evaluate.
“The fun part for me now is train someone and actually learn from them,” he says. “Take new technology. If we do this, we can go there. It’s a two-way street. I’ll share with them what I can help teach them and they obviously give back to me. It’s a two-way street and I love it.
“Even if an employee just started a week ago, I encourage them to come talk to me and share their thoughts. I want to know how they’re thinking. I love to learn people’s past so I understand why they say what they say, act how they act, so I don’t react negatively. It gives me a better understanding of how to coach them.”
Traut will look to share and pick up knowledge at events like the Breakfast and Coffee with the Master Groundwater Contractors and in the Exhibit Hall at Groundwater Week 2023. He makes it a point to learn and asks lots of questions. He respects the industry’s vast knowledge too much to let a learning or networking opportunity slip by.
“David will bring the leadership of a heart filled with great passion for this industry,” says NGWA Board Director Chauncey Leggett, CWD/PI, CVCLD. “I believe David looks at this next challenge as an opportunity he gets to do, not one he must do. Mindsets like that set one up to be a great leader.”
Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price contributes to the Association’s scientific publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at (800) 551-7379, ext. 1541.