People and Parts

The Year in Review

The pandemic continued in 2021, but labor shortages and supply chain issues are what dominated the groundwater industry.

By Thad Plumley

The Resources Drilling and Blasting Program at Fleming College graduates about 60 students a year seeking employment in the groundwater industry.

Just as they did last year when the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic brought most of the world to a halt, groundwater professionals continued to provide life-sustaining water to customers throughout 2021.

What slowed groundwater contractors this year was different—finding employees and getting needed supplies and tools in a timely manner. Its biggest competitor wasn’t an invisible and deadly virus, it was finding people and parts.

“I overheard a driller say to a rig manufacturer, ‘I will buy the rig right now . . . if it comes with a driller,’” offers David Traut, MGWC, CVCLD, vice president of Mark J. Traut Wells Inc. in Waite Park, Minnesota. “I feel this statement properly illustrates what we have been struggling with, not just in the pandemic but for many years. Make no mistake about it—we are in competition for an educated workforce with more than just the drilling contractor down the street.”

That’s why as Water Well Journal looks back on 2021, the labor shortage and supply chain issues dominate the most important articles and images of the year.

Working with Workers

A three-part series in WWJ titled “Workforce Development in the Water Well Industry” wrapped up in early 2021. It began in the December 2020 issue with a look at the million-dollar question: Where do we find employees?

The article talked to several groundwater professionals all facing the same issues: an aging workforce and a struggle to find young replacements, while also pointing out the stark reality that 75 million baby boomers will retire soon.

Parts two and three ran in the January 2021 and February 2021 issues with in-depth looks at onboarding and training employees and retaining employees.

Water well employers have learned the old way of doing things—making the new hire a driller’s helper who sits on the back of a rig for a few years before seeing if he or she can drill—doesn’t work anymore. What is critical is an onboarding process that captures the excitement of the employee.

At Partridge Well Drilling Co. Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida, the preference is to bring in employees with no or little experience so they can train the person in their workplace culture. It works as the company has several employees with more than 20 years of service.

Bergerson-Caswell Inc. in Maple Plain, Minnesota, has seen the benefit of conducting stay interviews with its employees.

“We have a 90-day probationary period to find if they like working with us or we like working with them,” Partridge Well Drilling Vice President Merritt Partridge said in the January 2021 article. “During that period, they shadow our more experienced drillers or service techs. However, there is no formal training program.”

Once hired and trained, the next issue, and arguably the most important, is keeping the employees. Almost as bad as finding a good employee is losing one to a competitor or another occupation that may come with shorter hours, more pay, and less back pain. One way to combat those issues is treating the hires like they have joined a family.

“I think the biggest thing is you got to treat employees like they’re not employees, but like they’re part of the business, part of the family, and constantly check up on all of them,” Buddy Sebastian, vice president/general manager of Sebastian & Sons Well Drilling Inc. in Springport, Michigan, said to WWJ in February.

“Be aware of their concerns. Family is a big issue nowadays, so you work around family issues with those employees. Make sure their compensation package is up to date with what’s going on in the job marketplace with insurances, and offering any other kind of benefits you can is always a plus. What’s good for one person might not necessarily be the key item for another person, so you almost have to tailor each employee’s situation individually.”

For some firms, staying in the loop with workers is a constant and not just something that happens when the workers are new. The February WWJ article discussed stay interviews where employers have an organized meeting that solicits feedback from the employees about what is working and not working.

“We ask in our stay interview how employees feel about the work they do. Is the load too much? Are they getting bored? And, if yes to getting bored, what can we do as a company to make their work more challenging to keep them motivated,” Stacey Henrich, an executive assistant at Bergerson-Caswell Inc. in Maple Plain, Minnesota, said in the WWJ February article.

Many contractors ordered product when they could and stored it to combat supply chain issues.

“We even ask what a reason would be to leave our company. This is where we get honest answers, and it shows us what we need to do to make our company a better place for everyone to work.”

Getting the Parts

Getting needed parts and components was an issue all year for groundwater contractors and manufacturers. Making matters worse is that it is affecting, well, everything.

“It isn’t just one or two particular components that are late in shipment,” Jeff Hunke, a managing member for Hunke Mfg. LLC in Snyder, Nebraska, told WWJ in August. “This problem exists with raw steel all the way to paint products and what seems like everything in between.”

It has forced everyone to do workarounds on the fly. Hunke mentioned “building what we can build” when parts come in. John Sutphin, owner of SEMCO Inc. in Lamar, Colorado, told WWJ in September that some main components of his company’s pump hoists were taking 12 to 20 weeks.

Contractors have over-ordered products, hoping they will come in and can be stored somewhere. Still, Traut said many products were taking two to eight weeks to receive with lead times for well screen and VFD motor controls six to eight weeks in the summer.

The delays have wreaked havoc on the profits of companies as crew efficiency is a critical part of the financial equation.

“The result is we spend much of our time rescheduling projects based on when we expect to get the products and that typically results in extra return trips to the customer’s location,” Traut says. “In some cases, we need to install a pump that will just get them by, possibly running an incorrect size pump which is inefficient, until the correct pump arrives.”

Some Good News

A broken pressure tank due to freezing temperatures in Texas gets repaired.

It wasn’t all bad in 2021. Sometimes you can find good in the worst of situations, and the rare storm that ravaged Texas in February was one such situation. Nearly 15 million people had water issues as power outages across the state caused above-ground private well pressure tanks and piping to freeze or bust.

But in Huntsville, Texas, about 70 miles north of Houston, William McPike, the owner/president of Geothermal Drilling Inc./McPike Water Wells, and other area contractors were sharing parts like control boxes, pop-off valves, air volume controls, and even pumps as well as labor to help each other complete their service calls.

McPike had 40-50 water well service calls in his 60-mile work radius, while other area contractors faced 100-150 service calls.

“In the water well world, we need to stay close together. We don’t need to compete against one another. That’s just not the way I see it,” McPike told WWJ for an article in April. “We need to work together, not talk about each other.”

WWJ reported in its July issue water well contractors working together in a truly incredible fashion. Roger and Norman Skillings, equal owners of Skillings & Sons Inc. in Amherst, New Hampshire, sold their newly delivered 2021 REICHdrill RTD69-PTO at the same price to a friendly competitor in need.

The competitor, Capital Well Clean Water Center in Dunbarton, New Hampshire, lost operation of all three of its rigs in eight working hours, leading Skillings & Sons (which runs five rigs) to sell its new REICHdrill RTD69-PTO and wait a few months to get its next one.

Dan Grace, vice president of sales and marketing for Capital Well Clean Water Center, estimates the company would have had to return $300,000 in deposit money to waiting customers if it wasn’t for the provided rig.

“I told (Roger Skillings) that, man, this goes beyond your lifetime,” Grace said to WWJ. “My kids will remember the day that my competitor helped us out in a time of need. He didn’t have to. Was not asked. He didn’t ask for publicity; no photo; just shook hands and we walked out.”

Summer of Dowsing

The 2021 REICHdrill RTD69-PTO, which was sold by one contractor to another in need.

The staff and members of the Board of Directors of the National Ground Water Association are occasionally interviewed by the media, but 2021 saw a string of major appearances all relating to . . . water dowsing, a practice the Association has formally opposed since 1989.

It began when NGWA Public Relations and Government Affairs Manager Ben Frech and NGWA Scientists and Engineers Section Director Timothy Parker, PG, CEG, CHG, were quoted in a New York Times story on July 17 that discussed the rise in dowsing due to the prolonged drought in the western United States.

That was followed by two national television appearances. First, NGWA President Merritt Partridge was featured in a news story that aired on August 19 on cable channel CNBC and then Frech was a part of a segment on the cable late-night program, The Daily Show, that discussed water dowsing on September 22.

In the New York Times story, Parker cited that hydrogeologists and water well contractors use a combination of satellite imagery, geology, and drilling data to assess water accessibility and resources, “compared to dowsing, which is a person with a stick.”

Popular in Washington

The topic of groundwater was one that came up regularly all year once again in Washington, D.C., with several items relating to PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan announced on October 18 the agency’s comprehensive PFAS Strategic Roadmap to confront PFAS contamination nationwide.

This followed the EPA’s “Announcement of Final Regulatory Determination for Contaminants on the Fourth Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List” being published in the Federal Register in March and then the Subcommittee on Environment and Public Works hosting a hearing in June titled “PFAS: The View from Affected Citizens and States.” NGWA submitted a letter to the hearing.

“The move towards regulating PFAS in drinking water and building public confidence in our drinking water is not only a health and safety issue but is also the best way to serve our industry,” NGWA CEO Terry S. Morse, CAE, CIC, said in March. “While the process is far from over, we are proud to have played a role in encouraging these actions and look forward to working with the EPA on finalizing the proposed
rules.”

Other big news in Washington was the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announcing its new Entry-Level Driver Training regulations were beginning in February 2022 and the geothermal heat pump installation tax credit being included in a COVID-19 relief bill at the beginning of the year.

“With the additional benefits these tax credits offer to home and business owners and the environment, we are thrilled lawmakers saw this as an opportunity to do something that will help the entire country,” NGWA Government Affairs Chairman Brian Snelten, PG, said in February.

Heading into 2022

Simply put, it may not be pretty for a while. Nearly all groundwater professionals don’t see the supply chain issues going away any time soon. Combine that with rising prices for most things (gas, electricity, food, and more) and you have some economic experts predicting ugly 1970s-style stagflation where rising prices are combined with little growth.

The news website Axios wrote in October that a worldwide energy crisis could be coming to households and manufacturers that were already struggling to bounce back from the pandemic.

“I believe we’ll still be dealing with the supply chain issue, but hopefully at a lower level than 2021,” Traut says. “Inflation will be an issue in 2022, so contractors need to be making pricing changes to allow for the additional cost for labor, materials, and fuel.”


Thad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and director of information products at the National Ground Water Association. He can be reached at tplumley@ngwa.org, or (800) 551-7379, ext. 1594.