Fostering a Healthy Stream of Next-Generation Drillers
Drillers are in high demand right now, according to Frank DeSafey, president and principal of Sequence Staffing. The traditional job recruiting firm specializes in matching employees with employers across environmental industries. He says drilling is one of the key industries the firm services. Drilling markets include oil and gas, environmental, water wells and geothermal.
Coupled with the fact that he expects the drilling industry to grow in the upcoming years is the fact that a number of long-time drillers, many baby boomers, are now retiring, he says. “My experience is probably the drilling industry is going to have a little bit of a crisis in the next four to six years in terms of personnel. I just don’t see as many young experienced drillers, and when I say experienced I mean between three and six years of experience, as much as I would like to see in the industry.”
The drilling employers he works with expect new hires to have the basic technical skill set and experience it takes to be a driller. On the other end of the spectrum, he says drilling employees are the ones with the upper hand because there aren’t enough of them. “I think that most of them, because there’s work for them, they tend to know what they’re looking for and I think that they’re looking for stability, they’re looking for good benefits and compensation of course,” DeSafey says.
The good news for drilling industry employers struggling to find workers to begin with, let alone workers who already know how to drill, is that comprehensive training programs exist across the country and they’re working hard to address drilling industry demand. These programs don’t just bring hope that a healthy stream of next-generation drillers is possible. They also bring employers more bang for their buck by fostering valuable new hires that are pre-trained and ready to work.
One example is the Apprenticeship and Skill Improvement Program (ASIP) Local 150, based in Wilmington, Ill. The 342,000 square foot training center sits on about 300 acres and offers a selection of training programs in fields including heavy equipment operation, heavy equipment repair technician, building and construction inspector, and more. One of the programs it offers is specific to drilling. The four-year apprenticeship, led by drilling instructor David Bowers, covers water well, geothermal and geotechnical drilling, and it’s heavily centered around what the industry needs at any given time.
“We tailor the training to whatever the need is going to be,” Bowers says. If geothermal drillers are in high demand in the region they serve — northern Illinois, northern Indiana and northeast Iowa — they focus more training on that market during that year. Since the demand tends to change over the course of four years, the apprentices are able to get a well-rounded experience as they’re matched with a variety of contractors. “We try not to leave anybody for their entire apprenticeship in one field because we want everybody versatile enough that they can work in any field,” Bowers says. “It makes for better employees. It makes for a more flexible workforce when one thing slows down that we can pick up in another thing.”
At the start of the drilling apprenticeship, trainees spend two weeks at the Wilmington training facility. They are taken through a myriad of drilling related topics including soils and logging, drill rig operation, mud mixing and more. The drilling instructors evaluate their performance during those 10 days and rank them in order of performance. At the end of the initial training period, the trainees are sent to nearby drilling contractors, with the best performers getting sent out first. “During that two weeks I’ve laid out enough basic knowledge that when they get called out they can perform their job to a fairly high level for an entry level,” Bowers says. “They are coming in with a basic understanding of drilling work.”
As soon as the apprentices are matched with a contractor, they’re out in the field working, learning the ropes of the trade in a real world setting. What’s more, they’re paid for their work by the contractor who hires them and they make approximately 50 percent of what the union drillers in that area make. The drilling apprenticeship is made possible half by the contractors and half by the union. “The contractor is contributing — it’s not very much money — less than a dollar an hour per every hour that a given apprentice works on their behalf paid back into our training fund,” Bowers says.
During the first 1,300 hours of the apprenticeship the trainees come back to the training facility for about three weeks to get more formal training. Those 21 days cover the 40-hour Hazwoper training, CPR training, fork truck training, OSHA 10-hour safety training, 120 hours of on-the-drill-rig training and hydrology/geology teaching from the University of Illinois. The program also highly suggests and helps apprentices get CDL certified. During the second, third and fourth year, the apprentices spend about two weeks at the training facility for more formal training and evaluation. All of the rest of their time is spent working with contractors on real jobs.
As the apprentices move up the four-year tier system, their pay increases by 10 percent every year. Most of the trainees start with auger proficiency and eventually move into proficiencies in mud rotary work, air hammer work or setting geothermal loops. The instructors develop performance tests in each category based on what the apprentices should be able to do.
At any one time, the program has about a dozen trainees enlisted. It’s open six days a week and uses three drill rigs for training: two geotechnical and one water well/geothermal. Bowers says they are partnered with about 30 drilling contractors, many with multiple offices in the area. About 11 are water well specialists, 5–6 geothermal and the rest geotechnical.
The program benefits the partnered drilling contractors in that it gives them the experienced they’re seeking along with a say in what the next generation of drillers is taught. According to Bowers the stream of workers he’s sending into the industry is helping to address the shortage of young workers. “I have had some that were in their 40s, but for the most part these are 20- and 30-year-olds.” At the end of the apprenticeship, he says the trainees receive a certificate of completion and should ideally be able to drill in any of the three fields. In many cases, contractors officially hire trainees on as long-term employees. “What [contractors are] really looking for is just value. They’re going to bring a new guy in and we’re taking much of the heavy lifting of training somebody and vetting them off of them,” Bowers says.
Speaking of vetting, another training program is doing something similar for the oil and gas industry. It’s called ShaleNET and five colleges across the country are offering it. It is funded by a $14.9 million Department of Labor grant and offers different tiers of training for oil and gas industry employment. The five tiers of its “stackable credential model” include foundational skills, entry level certifications, certificate programs, an associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree. The avenues don’t just cover drillling; they deal with upstream, midstream and downstream aspects.
As with the Illinois apprenticeship, this program listens closely to what the industry needs and teaches to that. Participants include Navarro College in Texas, Westmoreland County Community College in Pennsylvania, Stark State College in Ohio, Pierpont Community & Technical College in West Virginia and Pennsylvania College of Technology in Pennsylvania. “The idea that came about was really to address an industry shortfall of trained people for the industry and also to address turnover rates and things like that,” says John Strittmatter, ShaleNET eastern region hub director.
Since different regions have different demands, the schools involved offer different aspects of the ShaleNET program. “Everybody’s trying to respond within those program areas,” says Tracy Brundage, vice president of workforce development at Pennsylvania College of Technology. “For example, for us here we do a lot of the short-term programming, the non-credit piece, where some of the other schools aren’t doing as much of that.” The school also offers a credit program in mechatronics.
The non-credit piece offers short-term training for roles including roustabout, floorhand, completion technician and welder helper. Pennsylvania College of Technology teaches to the roustabout and floorhand positions. This tier of the ShaleNET program gives students 21 days of fundamental training, no days off. Areas of teaching include safety, natural gas 101, well pad construction, part identification, basic rigging, rig field work, well production, spill prevention, first aid, pressures and forces, hydraulics and more.
The training serves as what Strittmatter calls a boot camp, because it gives students an understanding of the oil and gas industry without getting too specific and limiting their potential. “[The industry] told us that the thing that they needed was a series of base level skills that included safety training and all these sorts of things. So they cautioned us as far as overtraining, because each company then wanted to take our students who have 21 days of this training and then take them in whatever direction that they wanted.”
The net result? Unbelievable, according to Strittmatter. “If you look at the demographics of all of this, we have a 98 percent placement rate. You can’t get much better than that.” He says the floorhands and roustabouts have a lot of transferable skills that all kinds of different oil and gas industry companies are interested in. “We had one class back in December that Halliburton, for example, came in and pre-interviewed everybody halfway through the class so that they ended up hiring everybody out of that particular class,” Strittmatter says. “Drilling is one part of it, but we’re talking about some midstream companies that are after our graduates, pipeline companies.”
Unlike the Illinois apprenticeship, trainees within Pennsylvania College of Technology’s short-term ShaleNET training program aren’t necessarily bringing a next generation to the drilling industry. While Brundage says that ShaleNET’s longer-term educational tiers that offer certificates and degrees see more traditionally college-aged students, the 21-day roustabout and floorhand training doesn’t. “We are getting the unemployed, underemployed, veterans, people that want to transition and want to move into this industry — non-traditionally aged students — for the short-term program. We are also getting students that may have just graduated with a degree [in another field],” Brundage says.
While the college and the ShaleNET program it offers have no shortage of prospective students, Brundage says they take the challenge of informing young people about this avenue seriously and have made it a habit to reach out to K-12 systems. “We’ve done a lot of information sessions for superintendents and principals talking about ShaleNET. We’ve been to the high schools. So everybody regionally is making those connections to try to inform and educate people in the pipeline about what opportunities are available in this industry, not just from the drilling perspective, but overall in a number of different careers and opportunities that they may have as a result of investigating the industry in more depth.”
Just as it’s important for educational programs to communicate with school-aged students to get what they want — full classes — Brundage says it’s important for drilling industry members to communicate with educational programs to get what they want — capable employees. “One [piece of advice] is making sure that education and industry communicate and have strong partnerships and advisory opportunities to become involved so that they can actually have feedback into the competencies, so that the curriculum that folks are taught are specific to what’s happening in the field,” she says.
As far as appealing to a next generation of drillers, industry employers have to be able to offer a long-term career opportunity, not just a job, according to DeSafey. “They’re really an asset to organizations and we need to treat them that way and look at them as long-term sustainable resources to ourselves and not just project-to-project individuals.”
Turnover in the drilling industry isn’t just about employers, according to Bowers. “A lot of people take jobs but they don’t stay. That’s why turnover in drilling is very high because it is a difficult career path to take. It’s very physically demanding, it can be mentally demanding, there’s a lot to learn.” A big part of the value in training programs like this is that the employees coming out of it already know what they’re getting into and they aren’t surprised by the hard work involved.
The challenge of finding and keeping drillers is likely to persist for the next three to five years, according to DeSafey, who admits, “If there was no demand for drillers, if it wasn’t hard to find them, then I wouldn’t have a profession.” However, with the help of programs like ASIP Local 150 and ShaleNET, the drilling industry won’t necessarily have to settle for unexperienced individuals; they’ll have a group to choose from that’s prepared to get down and dirty.