Promoting drilling jobs in an era when the average worker’s age is 55
Industry must generate excitement to attract new hires
May 23, 2023 By Mike Jiggens
The average age of well drillers in North America is 55. Most drilling businesses are about 10 employees in size with 1½ drilling rigs. This gives the industry much to think about moving forward, an experienced Michigan driller said in December during Groundwater Week in Las Vegas.
“How do we get to where we need to be?” Brock Yordy, Central & Great Lakes region director of environmental health & safety and sustainability for Veolia North America Municipal Water, asked an audience of drillers at the annual conference.
The challenge before the industry lies in the hiring, training and retaining the next generation of drillers, he said.
A large portion of the industry’s millennial generation has been lost due to a poor transfer of knowledge and an unsatisfactory job of onboarding. Yordy said more thought must go into understanding where prospective employees are coming from and how they can best be recruited and retained.
The slowdown of the housing market contributed to the hiring crisis, he said, noting it wasn’t a problem attracting millennials into the industry prior to the economic downturn. Over the past 20 years, however, many either opted for college or joined the military.
“The ones who want to work in our industry are here,” Yordy said. “We need to know why they stayed and what inspired them to stay and what they want out of their career to build on that next generation.”
He said there are about 166 million Americans currently working – 7.6 million of whom are employed in construction trades. In 2022, 1.2 million construction workers left the profession, and, even though about 900,000 new people entered the industry, an overall downturn was realized. Among the 7.6 million workers employed in various construction trades, only half of one per cent work in the drilling industry. The glamour jobs which pay the most among construction workers include electricians, plumbers, carpenters and roofers.
Yordy said high school shop classes are disappearing and careers in the trades are rarely discussed anymore with students unless they’re among the glamour jobs. Only half of high school students today believe they can be successful without a four-year degree, he added.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, about 573,000 people work in the mining field, 280,000 are in oil and gas, and 258,000 are equipment operators. The difference between those professions and the half of one per cent employed in well drilling, he said, are purpose, training and path
“It’s very important to get these (well drillers) individuals excited.”
Drilling industry employers must figure out the value that college graduates wishing to enter the profession might provide.
“What does it cost when you train that person for a month or two months to eight months? What do you think it costs you at eight months when they walk away? Is that a $500 a month investment? Is it a $1,000 a month investment?”
Employers have much to consider, including the possibility of a newly trained employee who suffers an injury or one who starts his own business at the end of his training.
Learning why employees stay
The reality, Yordy said, is that the millennial generation is being pushed out. Employers must learn why those who opted to remain made that choice so that they can hold onto the “roots” of their company. Discussions about expectations and retention must be made.
Employers might receive one good resume out of 10 which doesn’t help to build the industry. Job fairs, technical schools and college internships are good sources of finding potential recruits. Yordy said there are many geoscience majors studying at agricultural colleges who would “murder” to work from mid-April until after Labour Day.
“That’s one of the busiest times of our year. We’d get somebody with an outside perspective who is thinking that they’d want to be a scientist or may end up becoming a driller.”
Generation Z people are connected and visual, Yordy said, but how can they be inspired, he asked. A workable approach is to reach out to them while they’re still in high school and show them how exciting a career in drilling can be.
“Drilling is part of progressing civilization. Water is key for survival. Water well drilling sustains life. Oil and gas drilling provides energy. Geothermal provides energy – green energy. Is there anything more spiritual than making water come out of the ground?”
The key is to be able to transfer the knowledge from those retiring to those entering the industry, he said.
Other considerations include getting new recruits the tools they need, the means of developing new hires and discussing with them such matters as hours of operations, working conditions and travel expectations.
“We have to talk about those and how we’re going to make that a good experience.”
Yordy said about one-third of drilling company employees feel unsafe on the job, bringing into question a company’s standard operating procedures and how they are documented. He asked what a company’s goal is if others can’t execute and step up when someone is injured or unavailable.
Opportunities must be created in collaboration and better processes must be considered. Yordy said companies must “be that fire” for employees who are passionate about the profession.
“Don’t assume that our new hires or our employees aren’t researching. Our companies’ base that we built to where we are with our multi-million dollars’ worth of equipment should be core to that development and understanding those innovations.”
Employers must find skill sets among their employees that can be developed and assign the right mentors to guide them and help them overcome their weaknesses, he added.
“If I want to be a better driller, I need to know my assistant for my future driller knows what’s coming out of the hole and understands that when the mud bit starts to go down that we’re not just going to add water.”
Yordy encouraged companies to develop their own training program and find the trainer/coach/mentor who is the best fit with a new hire. That individual may not necessarily be the company’s top driller, but perhaps someone with more patience. New hires should also be taught everything their superiors know and be included in key discussions, he said.
The industry is currently hurting with the average employee age at 55, so confidence must be built within companies and in the field, Yordy said.
“I don’t know if we need to start thinking that every employee we hire and start training is going to be a 25-year employee. Get through the first year and develop them through the third year, and then we can start retaining.”
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