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Hiring and retention in drilling amid challenging times in the industry

Strategies for getting and keeping the best employees

May 14, 2024  By Mike Jiggens


A younger worker is mentored by an experienced co-worker at a job site. Photo credit: WCJohnston/Getty Images

It’s been said that by 2030, 45 per cent of those currently working in the groundwater drilling industry will be retired. The industry has known for years that its workforce is aging, and hiring and retention practices remain a challenge, especially since the arrival of COVID.

The industry must focus more on addressing its hiring, retention and training strategies as more and more workers leave the industry due to their advanced age.

Brock Yordy, a third-generation driller and industry educator, spoke to the issue in December at the National Ground Water Association’s Groundwater Week in Las Vegas. He said water drilling is “an important piece of civilization,” but the industry is small and could become smaller if existing drillers, assistants and field technicians are enticed to move on to other opportunities.

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“Recruitment is a big piece of this building block of getting the right individuals to become field technicians, assistants and drillers,” Yordy said, adding that hundreds of thousands of new jobs are springing up in the clean energy sector which could lure existing drillers and those who may have been contemplating a career in the industry to switch tracks.

“How do we compete with that?”

Yordy fears plenty of good drillers may wish to seek employment in geotechnical or environmental fields, especially with the PFAS issue hitting harder.

There is much to consider when hiring and retaining workers, he said, noting it’s important to have a proper retention program in place. He pondered what it could cost a company if it spent time and money to train a worker, only for that individual to move on after being employed for only weeks or months.

“What did that cost our business? What did that cost us in time and knowledge? A lot. A thousand dollars a week? Fifteen hundred dollars a week?”

The industry has suggested for several years that drilling is a young individual’s game, Yordy said, adding it implies that younger workers’ backs have yet to be broken and that they can be worked longer hours because they may be single and have no home commitments.

Companies must realize that a young, single worker is apt to one day find a partner and start a family and will need a family-sustaining wage, Yordy said.

“What does that wage look like? Is it a safe place to work? Does it have standard operating procedures? Are these procedures what built the company?”

Safety is a big part of the drilling industry, he said, questioning what happens when there are no standard operating procedures and job safety analyses aren’t being looked at. It’s costing companies individuals who are no longer on a job site or are working recklessly and not learning the proper steps. 

Collaboration, competition opportunities
An employee retention program must create opportunities for collaboration and competition. Yordy said it’s important that companies not assume new hires haven’t started researching job processes, innovation and alternative solutions. The next generation of drillers has been developing special skills from a young age. He said those skill sets should be recognized and built upon, and that ways to overcome their weaknesses should be found.

Assistants who wish to become drillers should be encouraged to list five goals they wish to complete, Yordy said. They should consider where they want to be in one year, both professionally and personally. The employer will list his or her set of goals, noting those that should be completed within given time intervals. Quality, achievable goals are created, and the company can encourage employee growth and development by signing workers up for educational webinars and National Ground Water Association University learning.

Top priorities for companies should include creating job safety analyses or standard operating procedures for all processes, improving one process through technology or better practices, creating a timeline for professional development and obtaining licences and professional certifications, and identifying cost-cutting measures or efficiencies for regularly performed work.

Yordy said all goals should require documentation, milestones and collaboration.

“An assistant driller should be competent enough that they can stop the machine. They should understand the functions. They should be competent enough to keep the job site safe.”

With 45 per cent of the industry’s workforce set to retire by 2030, Yordy said it’s time to start thinking about what those milestones should look like.

“Who’s our knowledge broker, our knowledge sharer and knowledge keeper? Our keeper can be good or not want to teach anyone anything for fear that person will take his job.”

Companies adopting a mentor-coach culture will realize the best mentors and coaches will create a lifelong impact. Age doesn’t define a mentor and knowledge should be shared without fear. There should be a mutual exchange of knowledge with the student included in critical discussions. The goal is to establish a culture of expertise and trust.

The right training program must be defined as well as the company’s standard operating procedures.

“What do our site hazard identification tactics look like? How do we develop good decision makers?”

Training programs
Yordy said training programs are easier to develop today than in years past because of the availability of online videos, but a company will be challenged to train others if it doesn’t have a book of procedures in place. He said companies must trust the standard operating procedures it puts together. It can make changes but must also be able to use the right tools because that’s how the project knowledge and execution that build the company is gained. 

“We have to build this entire program on trust. It’s a process that promotes growth by building confidence within the organization. We’re setting goals for the team to be safe and efficient on projects.”

The team should be involved in standard operating procedures, Yordy said, creating outlines and tasks and thinking of worst-case scenarios. 

Selecting the right coaches and mentors can make the difference between having a driller ready in six weeks or six months or one that takes four years to be competent. Yordy warned there are many “buffoons” that can assume coach or mentor roles.

“We need to include our young drillers and assistant drillers in critical discussions. We’ve got to have that good mutual exchange of knowledge.”

Creating a collaborative process includes checking egos, starting conversations with defaulting to trust, trusting a company’s methods and success rates, questioning everything with an open mind, sharing best practices and new methods, and incorporating science, instincts, experience and knowledge.


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