Workforce Development in the Water Well Industry

Part 3 of 3. How to retain employees.

By Mike Price

Partridge Well Drilling Co. Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida, has many long-term employees for a variety of reasons, including the company being flexible with time off. Photo courtesy Merritt Partridge, vice president of Partridge Well Drilling, and president of the National Ground Water Association.

As each company knows, the lifeblood of the water well industry depends on the next generation learning the skilled trade and making it their profession.

The specialized industry has long been known for its welcoming and close-knit family feel. That’s why conference trade shows at the state and national levels resemble family reunions. The familial culture, working in breathtaking locations, and other industry traits help attract and retain employees.

“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,” says Buddy Sebastian, vice president/general manager of Sebastian & Sons Well Drilling Inc. in Springport, Michigan.

“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.”

Several drillers at Partridge Well Drilling Co. Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida, have worked at the company for more than 20 years. Its longest tenured driller is at nearly 35 years. The company offers health insurance, a 401K, bonus programs, and vacation/paid time off.

“I believe one of the many reasons we have long-term employees is that we are very flexible with time off,” says National Ground Water Association President Merritt Partridge, vice president of Partridge Well Drilling. “It’s rare that we say no to an employee when he or she asks for time off.

“We also offer some professional development activities; however, the goal is not primarily to retain an employee but rather increase their growth and potential.”

David Traut, MGWC, CVCLD, stresses retention begins with ensuring the employee enjoys the craft. Next, Traut says both the employee and their spouse or significant other must appreciate all that comes with the job.

“In the drilling industry, there’s going to be late nights, early mornings; some days you’re going to come home wet, some days you’re going to come home cold, and so they’re going to have to deal with it,” says Traut, vice president of Mark J. Traut Wells Inc. in Waite Park, Minnesota.

Like others in the industry, Traut has an open-door policy to ensure feedback is welcome at any time. At a minimum, Traut’s 55 or so employees each have at least one sit-down interview during the year. Traut wants to know what they’re thinking and where they want to go in the future.

“If it’s a newer younger person, they may have multiple sit-downs because different people progress at different rates,” says Traut, who serves on the NGWA Board of Directors. “We need to know what they understand, where they need help.

“If this person comes from the demographic who switches jobs every five years, I need to get him up to speed as fast as possible to be as efficient as possible because five years down the road he might decide on a career change. I don’t want to spend three years training a person and then replacing him in five.”

Three Keys

Devoted to the water well industry for decades, NGWA Past President John Pitz, NGWAF, says it will take three keys for the industry to attract and retain its next generation of employees:

  • A competitive wage to attract the new employee and financially reward them for their hard work
  • An opportunity to help grow the business while allowing them to express themselves, which will motivate the employee
  • The younger generation’s attitude on life has changed and must be accounted for.

“The younger people—and people in general—want to be able to enjoy life,” says Pitz, who served as NGWA president in 2012 and is president of the consulting business, N.L. Pitz Inc. in Batavia, Illinois. “That’s one of the most difficult things for our industry because just the nature of it—sometimes we have to work weekends, late in the night, or early in the morning. To grow, we need to realize they need to be the exception, not the normal operating procedure.

“So, as I look at attracting young groundwater professionals, that’s exactly what we need to make them—a professional. Get them involved, find a way that we can use their skills.”

Pitz, the recipient of NGWA’s most prestigious award, the 2020 Ross L. Oliver Award for outstanding contributions to the groundwater industry, helped create the NGWA Drilling Cost Calculator and NGWA Pump Installation Cost Calculator nearly 10 years ago.

Bergerson-Caswell Inc. in Maple Plain, Minnesota, has seen the benefits of conducting stay interviews with its employees. Photo courtesy David Henrich, CWD/PI, CVCLD, president of Bergerson-Caswell.

These calculators, in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet format, assist water well contractors in understanding the cost of running their business. Among other things, it lets business owners know if they can offer competitive wages for their employees.

“When you understand the cost of running your business, you can make decisions as to how you want to move forward,” Pitz says. “I would say that the cost calculator today is every bit as important because the whole dynamics of our way of life are changing. We need to be able to know: What can I do? What are my costs? Business always comes down to that.”

Utilizing the cost calculators, Pitz says, forces business owners to be involved in their business.

Tim Yoder, CVCLD (right), president of Yoder Drilling & Geothermal Inc. in Sugarcreek, Ohio, is grooming his fourth-generation son, Mitch (left), to run the company when Tim decides to retire. Photo courtesy Mitch Yoder, Yoder Drilling & Geothermal.

“If you’re running a business today, you need to be involved. It’s very easy to say, ‘Ah, I gotta go to work,’ and you put off doing the admin of it, and your business fails,” he says. “The cost calculator, I believe, is the strength of going forward.”

Brock Yordy, a global drill trainer, consultant, and contributor for an industry magazine, agrees with Pitz on the need to be considerate when asking the employee to work beyond their normal schedule.

“As long as we can say this job’s critical, there’s not a lot we can do, I need you to come,” Yordy says. “Hopefully, we’ve gotten the employee who has a great attitude and trusts you and says, ‘No problem, boss. I’m up for doing it.’

“But if we have a terrible environment—and then add to it working late or early and it’s cold and muddy—those employees don’t last. We have to define our expectations and then realize that we’re not treating our son the same way we treat our employee.”

Yordy also believes that attracting and retaining the next generation means operating in a safe, smart, and efficient manner. The industry’s image can be a recruiting tool.

“Knowledge makes experts. Knowledge makes professionals,” Yordy says. “I don’t want to be a dumb roughneck. I want to be a groundwater professional who is a member of NGWA and part of my local association.

“When you’re in the grocery store and a woman goes, ‘My well’s bad; we’re just trying to find the cheapest person to get the well going,’ you can go, wait, this should be as valuable as carpet, painting, or a car to buy.

“To do that, we need to educate our customers and we have to be knowledgeable. We have to show up and act like surgeons (when drilling). We should be as surgical as someone who works on someone’s spine.”

Stay Engaged with Employees

With the nature of the industry, Jessica Alexander conducts a variety of engagement surveys to keep pulse of the employees who work at Cascade Environmental.

“We do engagement and exit surveys, as well as 30- and 90-day post-hire surveys, to understand where our turnover is coming from and how we can reduce it as much as possible,” says Alexander, director of talent acquisition for Cascade, a provider of environmental and infrastructure drilling, site characterization, and remediation applications nationwide.

Cascade, with 37 offices nationwide, has its drilling crews on the road for up to 10 days at a time. The travel and long hours working in the elements can take its toll.

“I think the No. 1 hardest factor for us to get over the hump is you’re traveling on the road and away from your family a lot,” Alexander explains. “Obviously, we have to service our clients, and at some point, we can’t do anything about the travel. But we can always try to identify ways to do better in our scheduling and help our operations leaders understand the challenges, scheduling in advance, and those sorts of things.”

Alexander, a 10-year Air Force veteran, sees companies excel in soliciting employee feedback, but oftentimes the feedback gets filed away, never to be analyzed.

“I think actually reviewing the feedback and maybe doing a quarterly report or a biannual report to say here’s what our survey results show. What are some action items we can get out of this?” Alexander says. “I think that’s really important.”

Conducting stay interviews is another way to help reduce turnover.

In the 2018 Water Well Journal “People at Work” column, “Stay Interviews Help Retain Talent,” Alexandra Walsh writes that the shift from an employer-driven market to a candidate-driven market has created a war on talent. This has certainly been the case in the water well industry and forced employers to compete harder for good candidates than ever before.

As the name implies, the purpose of a stay interview is to learn what makes employees want to keep working for the company and what might make them want to leave.

Walsh recommends conducting a stay interview at least once a year opposite the employee performance review, and twice in the critical period during which a company experiences turnover of new hires.

“Conduct enough stay interviews, and you might find most of your employees are citing the same reasons for staying—or wanting to go,” Walsh writes.

In the water well industry, praise or constructive criticism on an informal basis are common, but companies often miss out by not regularly scheduling reviews.

“I feel a formal review process would be beneficial for the employee and the manager/supervisor,” says Partridge, the 2021 NGWA president. “We’ve lost a few employees because they were unhappy where they were at. The solution could have been an easy fix, but they didn’t bother to tell us about the issue, and we didn’t bother to ask.”

Stacey Henrich, executive assistant at Bergerson-Caswell Inc. in Maple Plain, Minnesota, has seen the benefits of conducting stay interviews.

“A stay interview asks employees to think outside the box about their work,” Henrich writes in a 2018 WWJ article “Minnesota Drilling Firm Shares Benefits of Stay Interviews.”

“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?

“We even ask what would be a reason 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.”

Besides engagement surveys, wage increases, and company events, Alexander says making sure employees feel valued is important.

“Talk about family and ask about their daughter’s dance recitals and working around family life as much as possible,” Alexander says. “Have that understanding and be human with them.”

Cascade also offers multiple employee perks such as tuition reimbursement and compensation for acquiring a commercial driver’s license (CDL). The company has a career progression model that shows how an assistant driller can become a driller or project manager.

Grooming the Next Leader

For a business to succeed in continuing its operation, new leadership will be necessary. In other words, succession planning is necessary.

Tim Yoder, CVCLD, president of Yoder Drilling & Geothermal Inc. in Sugarcreek, Ohio, has three sons who work for the 54-year-old company. He’s grooming his oldest son, Mitch, 32, to take the reins when the 57-year-old decides to retire.

A fourth-generation employee, Mitch is taking it day by day, learning the skilled trade alongside other employees before anything is handed to him. It was that way for Tim and his father, Dan. It’s been that way for countless others in the water well industry.

“I always had the support and knew I had the back of my dad,” Tim recalls, “and that’s one of the most important things to do with my sons also.”

Tim didn’t push his sons into the business but instead allowed them to choose their career. He credits the relationship built at a young age as to why they work well together at the company today.

“It’s not that we don’t disagree and have typical family issues, it’s just we know more how to handle it,” Tim says.

Mitch, who spends most days in the field, earned a business degree in Kentucky in 2011. He then worked in the private sector for three years before deciding to move back in 2014 to work with his father and brothers.

“We care about it because it’s the family business and we’ve decided that this is what we want to do,” Mitch says, “and we’re 100 percent invested in it. I think we’re really blessed to have the core group of employees that we have.”

The company core consists of three employees with 20-plus years of experience. The two longest tenured employees have worked for more than 40 years and will retire in the coming years.

“That’s something you can’t really quantify,” Mitch says. “It’s priceless to have people willing to stay like that.”

In 2020, Yoder Drilling & Geothermal prioritized ways to retain its employees by restructuring its pay and offering raises. The company’s prior pay scale was on a drilled footage basis, but as the company has phased out of blasthole drilling, it became obsolete. It also created a responsibility-based incentive pay where the employee in charge of the drilling crew gets paid extra on top of their hourly rate.

“It’s been very helpful. Guys are pretty happy about it,” Mitch says.

The business is busting at the seams with work with its nine field employees, following the acquisition of Mullet Drilling Co. Inc. in June 2020. Mullet Drilling, 15 minutes down the road in Millersburg, Ohio, has retired, so Yoder Drilling & Geothermal has taken over its accounts that it built up over 40 years.

Since drilling and servicing water wells are new for Yoder Drilling & Geothermal, the business has leaned on its core employees to handle it. Mitch and his two younger brothers, Jared (28) and Collin (25), are like sponges taking it all in. All three have worked at the business between seven and 12 years.

“We’re learning more than we can ever repay,” Mitch says, “honestly, and it’s been a blessing the whole time.”

Mitch likes the company’s future in the water well industry, in addition to the geothermal accounts it has already established which continues to grow. He respects the water well industry and is in it for the long haul.

“Water is absolutely essential,” Mitch says, “and it’s nice to be able to get people what they need just to live. Multiple times we’ve run into places where we can make a person’s year just by getting them a new well that has better water than they had before. It’s nice to be able to help people out in that way.”

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With attracting, onboarding/training, and retaining the next generation of employees, the water well industry is confronting the issue of workforce development like it has always done with other challenges—head on.

NGWA Past President John Schmitt, CWD/PI, walked away from the 2020 Michigan Ground Water Association Annual Education Conference, his 67th time attending, with a renewed sense of faith in the industry. It was largely based on seeing the future of the industry at the event: grandchildren and maybe great grandchildren of contractors asking questions and enjoying themselves.

“I think we will continue to drill wells for the good of mankind—for drinking, for bathing, for cooking, for irrigation, for whatever—as long as there are people on this earth,” says Schmitt, the 1996 NGWA president who received the 2003 NGWA Life Member Award.

“I think we face a bright future. We’ll see many changes. We’ve seen many changes in my lifetime and we’ll continue to see them.”

Read the Entire Series
This concludes the three-part series on workforce development in the water well industry. Part 1 is on how to find employees and part 2 is on onboarding and training new employees.

Reporting contributions by Thad Plumley, WWJ Editor, and 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.

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