Workforce Development in the Water Well Industry

Part 2 of 3. The onboarding and training of new employees.

By Mike Price

With a shrinking talent pool, the water well industry enters 2021 charged with setting up its current and future workforce to be successful.

The Resources Drilling and Blasting Program at Fleming College graduates about 60 students a year. Photo courtesy Jim Smith, professor in the Resources Drilling and Blasting Program at Fleming College in Ontario, Canada.

The skilled trade leads each company to approach onboarding and training new employees in its own unique ways. There are various factors to consider before laying out a training plan—all the while continuing to operate to earn a profit and prevent a backlog of work.

Throughout the United States and Canada, the industry is seeing the next generation typically be less competent mechanically and prone to job hop, leading to a high turnover rate. This has forced companies to rethink how they approach onboarding and training.

Because today’s generation switches jobs on average about five times during their career, David Traut, MGWC, CVCLD, values training programs catered and designed for a new hire coming out of high school, trade school, or college.

The vice president of Mark J. Traut Wells Inc. in Waite Park, Minnesota, favors more of an audio/visual training approach to accelerate the learning curve rather than what’s taken place historically in the industry.

Fleming College follows a teaching system that is focused on experiential learning. Photo courtesy Smith, Fleming College in Ontario, Canada.

“‘Hey, you be my driller helper for a couple of years and then we’ll see if you can drill’ doesn’t work anymore,” says the 63-year-old Traut, who serves on the National Ground Water Association Board of Directors and has approximately 55 employees.

“We’ve changed the way of training new hires. They basically go through a personal safety training. All drillers have HAZMAT training, site safety, and they then decide which department they’re going in: mud rotary, dual rotary, or sonic; and train specifically for that category. If they decide down the road they want to go into a different department, we retrain for that craft because there’s differences in types of drilling.”

Partridge Well Drilling Co. Inc. and others in the industry prefer little to no experience for a drilling or pump service technician position. It allows the company to onboard and train that individual in their workplace culture, which has proved fruitful: Several of its drillers have worked for more than 20 years and its longest tenured driller is at nearly 35 years.

“We have a 90-day probationary period to find out if they like working with us or we like working with them,” says National Ground Water Association President Merritt Partridge, 34, vice president of Partridge Well Drilling in Jacksonville, Florida.

“During that period, they shadow our more experienced drillers or service techs. However, there is no formal training program. When hiring for an office or mechanic position, we do prefer the person to have some experience.”

Whichever training program is selected, as the industry veterans begin to pass the pipe wrench on to the younger generation in the ensuing years, onboarding and training is becoming more critical.

“Our most difficult thing is just basic transfer of knowledge,” says 40-year-old Brock Yordy, a global drill trainer, consultant, and contributor for an industry magazine. “We have to be better coaches because we’re missing that foundation fundamental.

“If they get that and everybody on site has the same amount of knowledge today on how we’re going to drill this well, then they’re excited about drilling the next well. And then we’ve got them. We’ve embraced them. We’ve pulled the curtain back on the secret society of well drillers and they get to be part of the team.”

Onboarding New Employees

It may seem obvious, but the first step in onboarding a new employee is selecting the right teacher. This might mean the best and most efficient driller isn’t the one conducting the onboarding.

Rather, the individual chosen must be able to articulate what they’re doing effectively to the new employee. This is followed by possessing an organized onboarding plan that includes learning objectives.

“We follow a set plan when it comes to any training we do, and it starts with a learning objective,” says Jim Smith, professor in the Resources Drilling and Blasting Program at Fleming College in Ontario, Canada.

“What’s your objective for today and how are you going to get that across and who do you have getting that across? I strongly think more time planning the actual learning is needed. We further break down the learning sequence—what’s first, second, and third, and how am I going to verify those things?”

Smith, one of three full-time instructors at Fleming College, is learning to talk less and listen more to better understand where his students are struggling. The 15-year instructor with 24 years in the drilling industry is asking questions to discover where those knowledge gaps exist.

“It’s way more listening as an instructor and then planning out how I’m going to deliver this knowledge to them that’s effective and then how am I going to verify that they have it?” says the 42-year-old who has about 60 students graduate a year from the two-year program. “I’m going to ask questions. I strongly believe in experiential learning.”

Fleming College follows this teaching system:

  • The instructor explains the task to be taught.
  • The instructor physically shows the task as the students attentively watch.
  • The student performs the task while the instructor observes (instructor corrects and praises student when appropriate).
  • The student shows the next student how to do the task while the instructor observes (instructor corrects and praises student when appropriate).

“Empowering them to show the next student is going to further imprint it on their brain,” Smith explains, “so they think they’re doing my job, but actually this is all part of the plan of getting that knowledge in their head.”

Some companies in the water well industry don’t hire many employees (maybe a couple a year at the most), so they don’t understand today’s generation of new employees. Smith stresses that must change.

“Our students have changed and it’s no fault of their own,” Smith shares. “We have to stop all this whining about the young kids today. They’re a product of what we’ve created. They’re not as mechanically inclined as they used to be. We’ve had to change our programming back to the basics whereas half the kids had torn engines apart years ago. Most young people have not done that today.

“Years ago, when I started teaching, a lot of kids had dirt bikes, knew how to fix the lawnmower, knew the mechanicals. And now you ask a lot of students, ‘Can you check the oil?’”

Due to the high turnover rate of new employees, some companies in the water well industry fail to designate sufficient time and resources to onboard them. A one-day company and safety orientation, then directly to the field, isn’t the best route to take.

“If other skilled trades are paying more, having better benefits, and working conditions, it’s to be expected that we will lose good skilled people to other trades,” Smith says. “This makes it very difficult for employers to invest in training a new technician when they spend many years training only for them to take another job.

“One thing that might help is to hire a student from a program like ours where they have already invested their own money into two years of training.”

Clinton Dunn, program director—well construction technology of Southwest Mississippi Community College in Summit, Mississippi, interacts with companies from all sectors of the drilling industry that hire his students. Dunn suggests companies set up a mentor program or company knowledge and skills tests that result in pay increases for new employees during the onboarding process.

It’s important to have a plan when new hires come on board, and more onboarding tips can be found in a “People at Work” column from the May 2019 issue of Water Well Journal.

Training the Next Generation

Clinton Dunn

A 1991 graduate of the program he now oversees, Dunn cut his teeth for 17 years in the commercial/industrial water well and residential water well drilling sectors in Mississippi and Louisiana. He enters 2021 in his 13th year as program director.

“There’s such a generational gap out there right now,” says the 49-year-old. “The industry is begging for younger workers who are skilled and ready to go. That’s a challenge in itself with millennials and everything else these days, but the void is going to have to be filled, so we’re doing our best at Southwest Mississippi Community College to do that.”

Dunn’s two-year program covers all sectors of drilling (water well, commercial/industrial water well, oil and gas, geothermal, environmental, geotechnical, blasthole, mineral exploration, cathodic) and he takes between 8-10 new students a year. The program curriculum is 50% classroom learning, 50% hands-on in the field.

“It does no good to talk about polymers for certain situations in the classroom and not go out in the field and run into a swelling clay and use a particular polymer to combat that,” Dunn says, “or get a lost circulation zone and use a different lost circulation material to do that.”

Speaking in March 2020, Dunn’s class had recently finished construction of a 4-inch, 130-foot, flowing well for an RV park that produced 45 gallons per minute. It’s class projects like these that help students “put it all together,” he says.

Most of Dunn’s students are straight out of high school with no work experience or drilling work experience. He starts from scratch with such lessons: how to read a tape measure, different components of a drill rig and hydraulic fundamentals, basic geology, basic welding skills, how to drive a standard pickup truck, and how to back up a trailer.

Water well contractors need basic welding skills so they can build their own fishing tools, weld casing, and other reasons. Dunn teaches stick welding, metal inert gas (MIG) welding, and cutting torch.

In geology class, Dunn wants his students to understand what they’re looking for, why it’s there, how it got there, and the proper terminology so they can converse with geologists.

If they’re not in the field doing hands-on work, the class trains on different pieces of heavy equipment. Dunn has them train on a 23-ton National Crane to pull pumps or move pipe, a Portadrill 521 mud rotary rig to drill test holes and make small residential wells, and a CME-45B hollow-stem auger rig for monitoring wells or standard penetration test work.

“Two years sounds like a long time,” he says, “but there’s a lot you have to cover. When they start, they don’t know plumbing fittings; they don’t know the difference between CPVC pipe or PVC pipe. They don’t understand the difference between Schedule 40 or SDR pipe, or well casing. All this is pretty new to them.”

Both Dunn and Smith from Fleming College concede their students don’t necessarily need to be decent mechanics and able to tear a diesel motor down and re-ring it. Instead, they say if the drill rig doesn’t start, they should be able to diagnose and fix a laundry list of issues as part of preventative maintenance.

Many companies from throughout the United States recruit directly through Dunn’s program and offer summer employment to students between their freshman and sophomore years. The companies know if they can handle working for them during the summer, it’s expected they’ll do well once they graduate and get hired by the company.

“Since we’re really the only drilling school around, I have employers from all over the nation calling looking for drillers, driller helpers, people in the industry,” Dunn says. “I have a jobs listing board and there’s probably an excess of over 100 employers in this industry looking to hire my students, so if they’re willing to go where the work is, there’s plenty of job opportunities.”

While the drilling aspects are picked up pretty quick, Dunn reminds his students about the real-world working conditions awaiting them.

“This school, this is training,” he says. “We play drilling. We start at 8 a.m. and end by 2:30 p.m. You don’t understand the grind of start at sunrise and end at sunset or past. It’s just the work ethic that really when they get out in the real world, they’ll catch it, or they won’t.”

Manufacturers Provide Training

Dan Painter of pump manufacturer Flint & Walling Inc. senses a hunger in the water well industry to learn the intricacies of how a system and all its components work.

Painter, the product training and development manager, says the industry has evolved to where pumps no longer get repaired, they get replaced. They get field scrapped—whether they’re in or out of warranty.

“If a pump is not running or producing water, most contractors will look for simple solutions such as a blown breaker or fuse; however, more likely than not, that pump will get pulled and replaced,” says the 64-year-old in Kendallville, Indiana.

“I’m not discrediting the practice. It’s one our society has become well familiar with. If there is a downside to replace versus repair, it’s that today’s younger generation of installers have disconnect with the pumps their company sells and installs—unlike the generations when perhaps dad and grandad were involved. For the past 16 years, I’ve been providing training on all the different components in all of our various pumps.”

Painter has conducted hundreds of workshops, including continuing education unit (CEU) ones throughout his career and enjoys peeling the layers back to help contractors understand what differentiates one pump from another. He informs and shows them the strengths of each particular pump that build into a list of features, and most importantly, benefits that contractors may share with customers when attempting to close the sale.

“I feel the local professional contractor should possess more knowledge than any other source for the product,” Painter says. “They have retail and internet competition these days that prior generations did not, which is why their knowledge level and training is more important today than it ever has been.

“I’ve always told these contractors in the classroom you owe it to your customers and your community to be that beacon of knowledge about water systems and pumps. You’re the go-to person. The ability to share value is important when it comes to decision making. No one should be expected to spend extra money on something that they don’t find value in.”

That’s why part of Painter’s contractor training includes pointing out the materials of construction of the product—in addition to technical information about it—to help them be better positioned to troubleshoot the product and have an edge in sales talks.

Painter, who has two sons (Ben and Adam) who work in sales in the industry, first began giving workshop presentations in 1982. Now in the twilight of his career, Painter has seen how training has advanced from slide reels to PowerPoint presentations and virtual online training. He understands people learn in different ways: Some learn by reading, some by seeing, and some by hearing.

“Efforts have been made to capture all those elements in a single training platform,” Painter says. 

Since the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, Painter has given dozens of live web conferences that netted more than 60 attendees each (double the amount in 2019). Flint & Walling created a 10-week training camp originally for its employees but is releasing the 10 courses and exams at the end of each to suppliers and contractors. Painter is focusing on this initiative this year.

“In my heart and soul, the one person who matters the most is the contractor,” says the 40-plus year industry veteran. “If you can educate and train them…they will be more successful. I oftentimes get asked, ‘How’d your seminar go?’ Truth is, my opinion doesn’t count. Ask the people who attended. That’s the opinion that counts.”

_____________________________________________________

Traut, company vice president and NGWA Director, is excited pump manufacturers like Flint & Walling and others are upping their game when it comes to training the industry’s next generation. He has wished there was more training on the drilling side of the industry for a long time.

There is now with NGWA University, a new online learning platform to obtain continuing education units (CEUs) for state licensing, NGWA certification, or to simply learn a new skill.

“The nice part about that is we can finally get a platform to the younger generation that’s more intuitive and something they’re comfortable learning with to get them up to speed much quicker,” Traut says. “I think that’s going to be a good asset going forward.”

In 2021, one of NGWA’s federal and public affairs initiatives is to continue to promote legislation that would allow the 529 savings plan to be used for building trade certifications and continuing education credits, which could spur the younger generations to consider a career in water well drilling.

Part 3 of the series concludes with how to retain employees. Look for it in the February 2021 issue of Water Well Journal. Part 1 on finding new employees can be read here.

Reporting contributions by Ben Frech, NGWA public affairs and regional public policy manager


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 mprice@ngwa.org, or at (800) 551-7379, ext. 1541.