Workforce Development in the Water Well Industry

Part 1 of 3. The million-dollar question: How and where do owners find their next employees?

By Mike Price

Students from Southwest Mississippi Community College conduct a class project in the field off campus. Photo courtesy Clinton Dunn, program director—well construction technology of Southwest Mississippi Community College in Summit, Mississippi.

As the water well industry turns the page from 2020, it does so with one of the most looming questions circulating in the minds of business owners: How and where do they find their next employees?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” says Buddy Sebastian, vice president/general manager of Sebastian & Sons Well Drilling Inc. in Springport, Michigan. “In this job market right now, with a shortage in the trades, some of my colleagues go if you can walk and talk and breathe and show up on time, you got a job.”

The water well industry is considered a skilled trade, and it’s no secret the demand for skilled trades workers in the United States has been soaring. The need for skilled trades workers—including electricians, welders, mechanics, and others—was the highest of any occupational area in the country and globally according to the “Talent Shortage Survey” in June 2019 from Manpower Group Solutions. For the past decade, the trades have ranked among the top five hardest roles to fill.

The shortage in the trades is causing the baby boomer generation to work longer (25% of U.S. workers will be 55 and over by 2024). Still, baby boomers cannot work forever and more than 75 million will retire soon.

“It’s tough finding good quality people,” says National Ground Water Association President Merritt Partridge, vice president of Partridge Well Drilling Co. Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida.

“That’s the number one complaint I hear from business owners in this employee market. People are not just looking for a job, they are looking for a good-paying job and they know they have options in this market. We try to be competitive in what we can offer as far as benefits and wages.”

Recruitment in the water well industry was already becoming difficult when the housing recession in 2008 hit. Family-owned companies traditionally had hired from nearby large family farms because the children often had a mechanical background. Those large family farms, though, have been harder to come by throughout the country.

To match their workloads, some companies reduced their staff, leaving some potential job candidates to enroll in college. Then the tragic events of September 11, 2001 led many from the millennial generation to enlist in the military.

Southwest Mississippi Community College is one of the drilling schools listed by NGWA where companies come to recruit new employees. Photo courtesy Dunn, Southwest Mississippi Community College in Summit, Mississippi.

“I see an age gap of young men and women in their early 20s (less than 25), and then the next generation is in their late 30s (37-42), so there’s a 12- to 15-year age gap,” says 40-year-old Brock Yordy, a global drill trainer, consultant, and contributor for an industry magazine. “We lost most of the millennial generation to other industries.”

With the housing recession fading just more than 10 years ago, much like the stock market or oil prices, companies across the industry have experienced the highs and lows of finding new employees.

“Let’s face it, we’re seeing manufacturers leave (our industry),” Yordy says. “We’re seeing some (manufacturers) get sold. If the manufacturer is being impacted, our drilling companies are being impacted. We’re in a pivotal point in our industry.”

Competing with the Trades

In his fourth year as president of the Michigan Ground Water Association, Sebastian talks workforce development and the trades shortage often with colleagues.

The dialogue centers on how the industry can compete with the other trades (heavy construction, construction, plumbing, HVAC, etc.) for the dwindling class of qualified candidates.

“There’s one way to hire them: You got to pay them, and to pay them, you have to generate a profit,” Sebastian says. “To generate profit, our industry needs to be profitable. It’s not rocket science. It’s pretty simple, to be honest with you.”

The industry has historically struggled with not charging enough to drill and install a water well system. Some contractors slash their bids to get jobs. The topic of charging costs and battling low bids are common sticking points posted in various water well drilling Facebook groups.

Groundwater professionals can find employees on the National Ground Water Association’s Career Center located at www.NGWA. org/CareerCenter. Photo courtesy David Henrich, CWD/PI, CVCLD, president of Bergerson-Caswell Inc. in Maple Plain, Minnesota.

Sebastian says some in the industry equate not being able to pay their employees with their competitors. “The honest reality of it all is the competitor can only do so much work,” he says. “Period. So, eventually, people are going to either get tired of waiting for them and they’ll have to pay what it’s going to require someone else to do it.”

Sebastian, who began serving on MGWA’s Board of Directors 22 years ago, has presented workshops on job costs, company sustainability, and the future of drilling companies over the years at MGWA’s annual conferences. He’s told attendees they can be the market setter or the market follower. He urges setting the market for a business to be solvent.

“I’ve never operated my business on the premise of what my competitor is doing,” he says. “Now, there is also the fact of what the market will bear. You can’t be charging $250 an hour for the technical side of our work when HVAC companies are charging $110. You can’t be that far out of whack, but you can sure be at $120 to $125 if your costs say that’s where you
need to be.

“As an industry, we need to quit worrying about what the competitors are doing and worry more about what our costs are and move forward. And then, if it takes raising those costs to hire and attract and keep and retain good employees, then that’s what we need to do as an industry.”

A few years ago, David Traut, MGWC, CVCLD, was attending a plumber’s class. The master plumber and vice president of Mark J. Traut Wells Inc. in Waite Park, Minnesota, recalls some in the class complaining about the skills tests being too difficult. It was suggested the tests should be made easier to give the lagging workforce a shot in the arm.

“The instructor stood up and said, ‘Look, there was a time when plumbers got paid more than doctors,” Traut says. “If you pay enough, you’ll have a workforce.”

Traut, who serves on the NGWA Board of Directors, echoes Sebastian’s sentiment on upping pay to recruit new employees. Traut also notes higher pay can prevent employees from thinking of switching trades.

“If you think you’re competing with the other driller down the road, you’re mistaken,” says Traut who has approximately 55 employees. “That might have been true one time, but now you’re competing with the rest of the industry.

“The internet keeps our young workforce well connected and they have no problem jumping from well drilling to being a truck driver tomorrow. They can get paid a lot of money for just sitting in the truck. It’s never cold, never hot. It’s always dry. You’re competing with that.”

However, the 63-year-old Traut cautions that higher pay doesn’t suddenly produce candidates knocking on the door. He still stresses the importance of managing the human resources side of the business.

Finding Employees

Jessica Alexander has learned ways to find qualified employees, but in her mind, the most pressing issues are:

  • Educating the younger generations about the industry
  • Shifting the culture’s mindset that college is essential to obtain a job.

“I think a lot of the shortage that we talk about comes from a lack of awareness. I don’t think that many people are aware of this career,” says Alexander, director of talent acquisition for Cascade Environmental, a provider of environmental and infrastructure drilling, site characterization, and remediation applications nationwide.

“We’re a very niche industry, and so really it’s up to industry leaders and companies like Cascade to go out and educate people about what it is that we do, how you can actually have a career in this industry, and how it can be a very profitable and rewarding career.”

Alexander encourages thinking outside the box to find employees. Her company has considered sponsoring events at rodeos and NASCAR races in 2021.

“You really have to have an understanding of the type of people that you’re recruiting and what they’re interested in, what they’re drawn to, and where can I find these people,” she advises. “And then at that point, once you’ve identified where you can find them, it’s how do I attract them to our company? What are those value propositions?”

Cascade, with 37 offices nationwide, has been hashing out a trade school partnership program the past three years. The program consists of identifying vocational or technical trade schools that have curriculums (hydraulics, basic machinery, heavy equipment operations, for example) closely aligned with the skillset that Cascade is searching for in its drillers and driller assistants.

The company then cultivates relationships with the school’s career resources advisors to share what Cascade does and gets in front of a classroom to cast a vision for a career in environmental drilling.

Before the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Alexander said the company was hoping 30% of its new hires this year would come from the trade school partnership program.

“The biggest thing for us is trying to stay ahead of the game, and it’s really all about educating younger people about the career, especially with me and my generation,” says the 33-year-old Alexander. “I feel that when we were being raised, we were taught you have to go to college, you have to get a degree. And that’s great, but not everyone wants to go to college and not everyone needs to go to college.”

Alexander, a 10-year Air Force veteran, is passionate about recruiting veterans. She says Cascade has a strong relationship with www.recruitmilitary.com, the largest active database of veterans in the United States. Cascade regularly exhibits at job fairs solely for veterans and family members of veterans. The company has steadily increased its veteran hires with nine in 2017, 13 in 2018, and 20 in 2019.

“But I think the biggest thing is understanding transferable skills,” she says, “because a lot of times the struggle that veterans have is when they come off active duty; for example as an aircraft mechanic, they feel like that’s the only thing they can do. They don’t understand how their skills that they gained in the military transfer into civilian careers.

“So it’s about getting out there and talking about what we do and how all those different transferable skills can be applied in environmental drilling and just getting them excited about what we do and how rewarding the work can actually be.”

To make that personal connection, Alexander advocates for companies to visit their local military installation’s career services centers to express interest in hiring veterans.

“If you’re a small drilling company and you have a military base close by, that is a tremendous resource for you to go in and say, ‘I’m really interested in getting put in touch with transitioning veterans to help them find a career.’ Usually, they’re very receptive to that. It’s an incredibly good source of candidates.”

In-person, Cascade recruits at schools specific to drilling such as Sir Sandford Fleming College in Ontario, Canada; both hydrogeology and drilling at Western Michigan University; and other vocational institutions or trade schools. (See the shaded box for NGWA’s full list of drilling schools in North America to recruit employees.)

Virtually, the company partnered with Glassdoor in 2019 to strategically target job ads to women who have constructiontype careers and placed Cascade ads on Amazon and Facebook pages.

As with veterans, Cascade’s hiring of disabled veterans, females, and minorities has steadily increased over the last three years.

NGWA has compiled a list of drilling schools throughout North America for companies to recruit their next employees. Groundwater professionals can find employees on NGWA’s Career Center.

Hiring Quality Long-Term Employees

Partridge, the 2020 NGWA president, says his company’s best employees often come by way of referrals from current employees.

“Someone who is currently working here is unlikely to recommend someone who they don’t think will be a good fit because they’re afraid if that person doesn’t work out, it may be a poor reflection on them,” he states.

Partridge Well Drilling, one of the larger independently owned water well contracting companies in Florida with about 40 employees (16 in the drilling department), has also reaped success by placing online job ads at www.indeed.com.

Earlier this year, it posted for a driller helper position (commercial driver’s license required) and received about 90 applications within 72 hours. About 95% who responded didn’t meet the company’s minimum requirements, but it was able to get five quality applicants to interview.

During the interview, Partridge’s company is brutally honest with the interviewee. “It’s long, hot, physical, and dirty work,” he explains to the applicant. “We find it important to establish realistic expectations early so that when they start out with us, they’re not immediately disappointed.”

Partridge once heard someone say there are four stages to a new employee:

  • Excitement
  • Reality
  • Adjustment
  • Clarity.

“The quicker you can get someone to the clarity stage, the better employee he or she will be,” he says.

Partridge Well Drilling is a sixth-generation company that has been operating for 128 years. The task of finding and hiring quality long-term employees has always been a challenge.

“Being a family business presents its own set of advantages and disadvantages,” Partridge says. “However, we find that most people we interview see the family business aspect as a positive as long as there is room for them to grow in the business. We feel it is best to promote people from within the company rather than looking outside our business.

“Nearly everyone employed at Partridge Well started at an entry level position. That includes me. We believe this sets a good example for current and future employees by showing our commitment to not only the success of our company but their success as well.”

Sebastian, who manages 15 employees, has hired from all facets (word-of-mouth, online, etc.) and likes finding future employees working in other trades like carpentry and plumbing.

In an ideal world, Sebastian would see a shift in the culture’s mindset that college is essential to obtain a job—much like Alexander has suggested—and sees value in vocational training programs specific to the trades, including drilling. A program that alternates classroom learning and real-world work experience for the trainee with an established water well contractor.

“I’m an optimist, so I will tell you that I can see it happening,” Sebastian says. “However, I will say this: If our industry continues down its current shrinking path, I don’t know how it will be financed and be an attractive thing for any kind of vocational education institution to provide. It’d be like having a school for blacksmiths. We don’t want to get to that point.”

Sebastian, 56, believes continuing education needs to be part of the workforce development conversation. He says the more skills gained, the more one can do at their job, whether it’s a new technique, business practice, or product.

“When you stop learning, you stop growing. You stop growing, you’re dying,” he says.

“I think this industry is one of the most important industries in the world—in the world. I have a neighbor who is in the medical field, and he and I got to talking about it. He looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re right.’ He said other than air and dopamine, everybody needs water.”

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Partridge feels the struggle to engage the younger generation in the industry is changing.

He recalls serving on the South Atlantic Jubilee’s Board of Directors in 2009 when he was 22 years old. The pressing issue at the time was: “How do we get more younger people involved in our industry?”

In recent years, the now 34-year-old Partridge feels it’s becoming less of a problem based on various factors. He cites the economy being improved so the industry is generally in a better position to hire and train the younger generation.

“Many of my peers and competitors in my region are from the generation Y or millennial age group,” he says. “I can name at least six companies in the northeast Florida area that now have someone from that age group playing a key role in their company.

“I have also seen a downward trend of the average age of Board of Directors at state associations across the country.”

Lastly, Partridge loves seeing the surge of activity on social media in the industry. While he says it’d be fair to say much of that activity is due to the older generation becoming more active on social media, “I feel the millennial age group is the key driving force behind this trend.”

Part 2 of the series focuses on onboarding and training new employees. Look for it in the January 2021 issue of Water Well Journal.

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.