Washington State Contractor Hopes Developing SOPs and Other Training Tools Yields Results in Workforce

Published On: June 12, 2024By Categories: Business Management, Newsline, Workforce Development

Workforce development and training has been a huge topic in recent years in Pierce Kiltoff’s management meetings.

Kiltoff, who is president of JKA Well Drilling & Pumps in Monroe, Washington, has been actively working on standard operating procedures (SOPs) that can be used for training in an organized fashion. Other than SOPs, his company is searching for hiring and training ideas like many in the water well industry.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly a quarter of tradespeople are nearing retirement, creating a growing labor gap. Some in retirement age in the water well industry have continued to work or help as needed for their company so work is completed.

“We seem to get lucky and get a unicorn of an employee here and there,” Kiltoff shares, “but for the most part, it’s kind of a revolving door on the drill rigs—get a helper in, teach them a bunch, then they go somewhere else after one month or even a year or two.

“I’m getting better organized about how I train them, but we’ve never had a formal process for doing that, so it’s an uphill battle. Hopefully, as we develop our SOPs out and work on other tools to aid in training in a more organized fashion, we’ll see some results.”

Kiltoff, who estimates 25% of his competition is gone compared to 13 years ago based on the number of licensed water well drillers in Washington, noticed how part of the workforce development issue is continuing to persist via a public works bid that he was looking at months ago.

The bid was for a 16-inch × 200-foot well to be drilled with a cable tool rig. The prevailing wage rate in Washington and in this particular county is $16.28 per hour for a driller. According to Kiltoff, that rate is equivalent to minimum wage in the state. The same location has a prevailing wage rate of $79.31 per hour for a directional drilling operator.

“I don’t think there’s a well driller alive in this state making minimum wage, but I certainly don’t think anyone is taking home a $79.31 per hour pay rate either as employees [owners I think make much more],” he says. “But the bar is being set very low for a reason.

“The fundamental problem I see with any workforce development is that wages have been kept low in this industry, and I think that’s mostly because the majority of drillers are owner-operators and aren’t looking to replace themselves on the rig.

“If you have no urge to replace yourself, you’re not looking to pay living wages—just enough to get someone in the door long enough to shovel your cuttings pit and move trucks, until they get sick of it, and you have to get the next person in there to do that.”

To combat the retention issue, Kiltoff has begun conducting exit interviews, even if it’s just by text message, on what the employee liked and what they didn’t like, what could be improved on, etc.

“So far, I’m now the only residential driller who I know of who’s getting porta-a-potties delivered to the jobsites,” he says. “That’s a result of an exit interviewee saying he didn’t like that bathrooms weren’t available on site.

“So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, we need to raise prices, raise wages, and learn how to train people. Then we’ll find people who can fill the positions.”

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