By Carolyn Camilleri
Can these programs help protect the ground water industry and secure its future?
By Carolyn Camilleri
John Larson started in the well drilling industry in 1973, when he was 18 years old. Once he had his apprenticeship ticket and had worked for a while, he started Larson’s Water Well Drilling and Servicing out of Lougheed, Alta.
The business celebrated 40 years on May 31. He’s held a number of positions in his community – on town council and as mayor – and was on the board of the Alberta Water Well Drilling Association for 16 years. He’s retired from all that now, but he does keep one foot firmly in the industry: teaching the apprenticeship program at Red Deer College.
Red Deer College offers a two-year well driller program. Classes generally have 12 students at a time – most of them younger guys, he says – but some older, and two or three women over the years.
“Each year, they have to have 1,800 hours of field experience to come to school, with a total to get their apprenticeship ticket of 3,600 hours in the field,” Larson says. Classroom time is 180 hours each year.
“We say that what I teach in class is probably 20 per cent of what they need to know. Eighty per cent in the field is kind of our ideal,” he says. “I teach basically the tip of the iceberg.”
But it is a valuable tip of the iceberg.
“That’s why they like having somebody that actually has been out there doing it, because you can ask questions, and you can get some good discussions going,” Larson says. “The bigger the class, the better discussions you get.”
“I love doing it. I never thought I would end up doing something like this. This fall will be my ninth year,” he says, adding that the well driller who taught the program before him was there for 16 years.
Darcy Schmidt of Darcy’s Drilling Services, in Alberta’s Ponoka and Drayton Valley area, also started in the industry at a young age with his father. In 1978, he was in the very first apprenticeship program offered at Red Deer College.
“For me, it was invaluable. You learned from the people you went to school with, plus you had instruction, and you learned different ways to do things and not just the one standard way you’d been taught from your dad or your boss,” Schmidt says.
The program offers apprentices some attractive benefits. “One of the things they came out with here couple of years ago is you can have any kind of trade certificate in Alberta – a plumber, electrician, or water well driller, or whatever – and there’s a program at NAIT [Northern Alberta Institute of Technology] that’s called the Trades to Degree program. You can take your trade certificate and go to NAIT and start third-year business with it,” Larson says.
That flexibility makes the program attractive to students, especially if they are concerned about job stability. Another benefit for a registered apprentice is if they are injured on the job and can no longer do that job, they can be retrained in another trade.
Larson says Alberta’s well-drilling industry is relatively small, and many of the companies are mom-and-pop operations with second, third and fourth generations.
“There are probably a couple hundred of us in Alberta, and I know most of them,” Larson says. “I think most people are doing alright as far as getting staff, and our classes have been fairly full or overfull, so that’s a good sign.”
Businesses also benefit from apprenticeship programs. Sarah Watts-Rynard, executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, says the latest Canadian Apprenticeship Forum research (2011) showed that for every dollar an employer spends on hiring an apprentice, they receive an average return of $1.47. This is based on research with 1,000 skilled trades employers who actively hire and train apprentices, Watts-Rynard adds. Costs considered included wages, benefits, administration, journeyperson oversight, materials and waste.
“We also asked about productivity measures, such as charge-out rates or time savings when a journeyperson has assistance with complex tasks,” she says. “Many employers also take advantage of tax credits and/or wage subsidies to offset the cost of training.”
“Across most of the 21 trades we studied, apprentices were generating a positive net return by the end of their second year.”
Larson points to the Government of Alberta’s Trade Secrets website (http://tradesecrets.alberta.ca) for more information about benefits to businesses, but says one of the best reasons to hire an apprentice is the apprentice. Motivation to work is high and an apprentice comes with some good foundational knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom: welding, mechanics and hydraulics, as well as drilling and different kinds of rigs. In the second year, they learn well construction and development.
“The skill level the guys have when they come out of the program – they haven’t picked up all the bad habits that people who have never gone to school can pick up,” Schmidt says. “So the drilling industry has gotten way better here since the apprenticeship program started.”
Perhaps, too, people who have been through the program and understand the benefits look to support it when they are hiring.
“Employers often say apprenticeship is a ‘no-brainer’ for their business,” Watts-Rynard says. “In many cases, they were an apprentice themselves and feel as though this is an important part of paying it forward to the next generation.”
After all, it is a source of staff that have learned the same way you have. Schmidt says one of the biggest pluses of the program is that it gives companies a broad base for hiring employees who want to have journeyman status.
Larson concurs. “It’s good to have an apprentice out on the job site, for sure. Either you’re supervised or you’re unsupervised, and once you’ve got your ticket, then you don’t have to have anybody supervising you,” he says. “Once they’re there, they usually stay – a lot of them do anyways.”
In Alberta, the competition well-drilling companies have in attracting employees is the oil field.
“It’s always about the oil field,” Larson says. “It gets tough to compete with wages, because [workers] can go to the oil field and make $40 an hour or even $50, and we’re probably at $30, give or take. Some are maybe less than that. It’s hard to get long-term employees who want to commit.”
While the pay may be good in the oil field, the jobs aren’t always long-term.
“Some [employees] don’t think too far ahead,” Larson says. “It’s a lot better now than it used to be because, after the last crash with oil prices, I think a lot of them have figured that one out. We’ll see what happens.”
At Darcy’s Drilling, Schmidt works with three of his four children. Two of them, his son Michael Schmidt and his daughter Cara Riske, have completed the RDC Water Well Driller Program.
“My experience was really good at RDC. I got to learn quite a bit,” says Riske, who completed the program in 2011.
“John [Larson] is a really good teacher, and we got to do some hands-on stuff,” she says, adding that classes aren’t always in the classroom and include going out to rigs and meeting drillers on site.
As a woman in the industry, Riske has found the experience positive.
“I love it because I grew up with it with my dad, and when we were little, he would take us out on calls,” Riske says. “And I love being outdoors.”
Although she has her ticket, she doesn’t do a lot of the drilling but instead focuses on service work.
“Most people are just amazed that a woman is coming out and able to troubleshoot and figure out what’s wrong,” she says, adding that she definitely encourages more women to get into the industry.
Watts-Rynard says there is certainly a lot of interest in a more diverse skilled-trades workforce.
“I think employers and unions are making an effort to look beyond their traditional workforce to be more inclusive, and it makes good business sense to do so,” she says. “Employees with differing experiences and backgrounds think differently and solve problems in new ways, opening the door to new processes and innovations that might otherwise not have occurred.”
In 2015, only 13.7 per cent of newly registering apprentices were women, compared to 11 per cent in 2005.
“Most women enter trades that are female-dominated – early childhood educator and hairstylist, for example,” Watts-Rynard says. “When you look at industrial and construction trades, women generally fall below the five per cent mark.”
Other diverse groups are in similar circumstances: 8.7 per cent immigrants, 8.2 per cent visible minorities, and 6.3 per cent Indigenous.
“There has definitely been progress, and I get a strong sense the desire is there to make continued improvements, but change has been slow and there’s still a long way to go,” Watts-Rynard says.