An Interview with Longtime Drilling, Pump Contractor John Schmitt
John Schmitt, CWD/PI, can claim most of the honors the groundwater industry gives out. He was elected to the board of the National Ground Water Association in 1989 and served as president in 1996. He’s a life member of the NGWA and the Michigan Ground Water Association. He was given the NGWA’s Ross L. Oliver Award in 2010 for outstanding contributions to the industry. We can go on. But here at National Driller, we call him “columnist.” He’s graced the pages of this magazine for years, sharing insights on the industry and anecdotes from decades working as a pump man and well driller.
We caught up with Schmitt at the recent Groundwater Week event in Nashville, Tenn., and got a chance to ask him about his time in the industry and his advice for people just starting out. Our conversation here is edited for space and clarity.
Q. Tell me about your professional experience. Why would readers want to hear what you think?
A. I’m in my early 80s and I’ve spent my entire life in the groundwater or water well industry. I began to go out on jobs with my father when I was 5 years old. Although I did get an education in engineering, upon graduation I went into business with him as a contractor. We did primarily domestic and commercial wells. We did pumps. We did water conditioning. After many years of that, and an involvement in my state association in Michigan — the state well drillers’ association — I was asked to become the executive director of the Michigan association in 1987. I held that position through 2007. I, along the way, joined the National Ground Water Association. I was elected to the board of the national association in 1989. I became president in 1996. I have received awards from both Michigan and the national. I have life membership in both. My entire life has been in the water well industry.
I’m not a wealthy man. It’s been a wonderful career, and I’ve had a lot of experiences. So I guess I know our industry and I’ve had experience on more than a few jobs.
Q. You have been fairly active in the industry, even going so far as to serve as president of the National Ground Water Association in 1996. Can you talk about the value of serving the industry beyond the day-to-day jobsite?
A. I think that this is a case of, you’re only going to get out of it what you put into it. If you are going to join your state or the national and come to the convention or the meetings once a year, stay as short a time as you can, go on back home, never read the publications, you probably ought to save your money. You’re not going to get any benefit.
If you’re going to go to the convention and greet people … go to the booths, whether it’s in Michigan or Ohio or California or here in Nashville, you’re going to visit with people. Eventually, you’re going to be asked to get into the leadership. This is going to require some time, but there are great rewards. Frankly, I can’t go very many feet in these aisles where somebody doesn’t say, “Hey, John, how are you? Haven’t seen you in a while.” … You’ve got to get involved. The more you get involved, the more rewards you’ll reap. Will it be dollars to put in your checking account? No, it probably won’t. It might be. But you will receive many rewards. I, at this show, have had a number of people come up and say, “Keep writing. Keep writing your column. We love your column.” Those comments mean as much to me as anything. It’s not uncommon, if I go to a meeting, to be congratulated. So you need to get involved, and you need to get involved heavily. People say, “Well, I don’t have any expertise.” Yeah, everybody’s got expertise. Everybody knows something. Everybody knows what’s going on. … You’ve got to give to get something back. So I would say to anyone, get involved — and I mean really involved.
Q. You’ve just been assigned a new drilling trainee. What’s the first lesson?
A. Work safely. Ours, whether we like it or not, is an extremely dangerous business. People say, gosh, I lost my finger or broke I my bones, and it happened so fast. Yeah, it happens fast. Those engines or motors or cables don’t respect time, and they don’t respect you. If they’re going to break or break down, or break you up, it’s going to happen fast. So I would advise any young person — man or woman — to work safely.
I’ve only been injured badly one time in my career. I was hooking a cable to a drilling tool, and the method was to separate the wires of the cable, steel cable, and then pull them into a basket and fill the void with hot zinc, liquid zinc. The heating device backfired and hit me in the face with gasoline. I ended up in the hospital for five days. I didn’t have any scars. I can remember the incident — this happened over 50 years ago — like it happened this morning. But, work safe. Wear a hardhat. My father was a driller. He was clunked on the head while wearing a baseball cap. Fortunately, he was not hurt very badly, but he did need stitches. Work safe. Wear a hardhat. Wear safety glasses if you need them. Wear the proper gloves and the proper shoes. Don’t wear a bunch of loose clothing that can get wrapped up in a power shaft and kill you faster than you can say, “Bad.”
Q. What’s the most common mistake you see new drillers make? What’s the fix?
A. Not informing their customers of what they are doing and what they have done. This is one of my pet peeves. I am somewhat pessimistic about the future of our industry, especially in regard to what some of us would refer to as the “backyard well.” That is, a well serving an individual resident. Many of the people having these houses built, most of them, come from the city. I happen to be a country boy. I’ve lived almost all of my life in the country. My wife is the same way. But most people come from the city and the water comes from the water main. They do not understand their water well. They do not understand the freedom that it gives them, and they don’t understand the responsibilities it requires of them. I believe that in my lifetime we have made tremendous technological advances in drilling and pumping equipment, in water treatment equipment, in every aspect of the equipment we have. But we have done a not-very-good job of explaining to our customers what we did. They don’t understand it. They’re not trained in it. It’s not their business. We need to explain to people what they have, what to expect and let them know just what the capabilities are.
I think this is in an effort to maximize profits. Many contractors and their crews get the job done, let the boom down and head down the road to get to the next job. We need to do a little public relations — maybe more than a little public relations.
Q. Your father, Phil Schmitt, was quite influential in your own career path. What’s the most important lesson you took away from your time working with him?
A. No question, it was to do the job right. He started out as a farm boy who was hired as a tractor mechanic by an implement dealer. They quickly began to install, shortly after he was employed, generators, as there were no power lines. The first thing they hooked up for the farmer was a milking machine. He’d have a windmill for his water. But the second thing he wanted was a pump. And so, they started to sell pumps — a name brand from a company that’s still in business and is exhibiting here today. My dad, with the approval of his boss, would take me to work with him when I was 5 years old, mostly as a companion but sometimes I’d carry a pipe wrench. My dad went on his own in 1945 and stayed in business until his death in the early ’80s at the age of 92. But his story, to me, from the day I started going with him was that, “John, if you ever go into this business, do the job right. Do the job to the best of your ability, so that you can come back in a year, or 5 years, or 25 years, and say, ‘Yes, I did that job. I did it the best I could with the technology of the time and the products of the time, and I would do it that way again.” Or, another way of saying it is to do the job for the customer like you’d do it for yourself. That’s the motto I’ve always lived by.
Q. Looking back on your time in the industry, what’s one innovation or new technology that, when it came along, you wondered how you ever got anything done without it?
A. I think there are several. The several would be: the rotary drill rig, the submersible pump, the pitless adapter and the captive air tank. I always did more pump work than well drilling. I drilled a lot of wells. I wonder how we got along with the old-time pumps, although they did work, and the captive air tank. This has cut down service calls tremendously. I would go with my father and he’d install a pump, and you would know — maybe a stroke-type pump or a jet pump — that you were going to hold the hand of that thing until the day it died. You would break a pump rod, or the leathers would get bad, or the packing would leak cutting the gears out — the oil in the gear box, or the belt would slip. The jet pump’s jet nozzle would plug up. A conventional tank would have to be drained. I’ve had at least one pump that ran for 32 years. It was still running when I pulled it. We pulled it because it was in a very inaccessible place, and pulling it in the winter or the spring would have been impossible, so we decided the smart thing to do was to replace it before it failed. The same way with tanks. I’ve had tanks run for years and years and never required any service. So those are things, my goodness, if you had to go back to — at least where I live and work — the old systems, I think maybe you’d retire.
Q. Readers talk a lot about the greying of the drilling industry. What can the drilling industries do to attract and retain young workers?
A. That’s and interesting and very good question, and it was discussed yesterday at a seminar I attended. This seems to be a national or international problem. It seems that we have a lot of young people who feel that what they want to do for a career is punch on a computer. Now, I have nothing against computers, but the people who run them, they’ve changed our lives greatly. But there is a pride in doing things with your hands. You have to run a drill rig with your hands. You have to run a pump hoist with your hands. You have to set a pump with your hands. We have somehow got to attract young people to do this, and maybe we need more apprenticeships to give a young person — man or a woman — the opportunity to go out and work on a job. I have seen people cry when I told them, “You’ve got water. Turn on the faucet.” It meant that much to them. I don’t think the computer can tell you that. Not to put down the computer. But maybe we need some innovative programs to give people a taste of this. One of the things you hear from other contractors, and we heard yesterday from candidates for the NGWA board, is that they started as young people, oftentimes with their father or grandfather or uncle. That was what got me started. When I was 5 years old, we would get into my father’s heavily overloaded Ford pickup and he would say, “Well, John, we’re on our way again.” And those were the greatest days of my life. We had our lunch pails and our work clothes and off we went. Really, there was nothing I ever wanted to do besides drill a well or set a pump.
Q. What advice do you have for a young person considering the drilling trades?
A. Give it a shot. Get into it. Learn as much as you can. There’s all kinds of printed material you can read. Some of it is online, some of it is on the old-fashioned page. Learn what you’re doing and work hard at it, but take some time to sit back and enjoy life a little bit. … It’s fine to work hard. That’s a very good thing. But now and then you need to sit back and relax, whether it be going fishing or playing a round of golf or maybe bowling or whatever. There are hundreds of activities. Just relax and back away.