Twenty first century drilling contractors will face many challenges as they strive to run their businesses successfully, but none will likely be as daunting as efforts to hire and retain good employees, according to a group of contractors and industry experts.
The ongoing labor problem tops challenges cited by the industry professionals including economic factors in keeping a business operational, rapidly-changing advances in technology, environmental issues, and the need for more involvement of drillers in industry organizations.
"Finding drillers is a problem and finding helpers is a real problem too. Last year I went through 21 helpers," said Ken Dalby, vice president of Mitchell Drilling Co. of Alamosa, CO. "Right now, I've got two drillers who had been working in the oil fields and had water well experience. When you find a good driller or helper, you do whatever you can to keep him,"
"From what I've seen, young people would rather to work at McDonald's than work in a job where they get hot or cold and dirty," said Dalby, whose company owns three rigs and employs nine people.
One reason for the difficulty in recruiting or hiring drillers and helpers may be the drilling industry's lack of visibility to the public, said Allan Garrard, the National Drilling Association president and supervisor of drilling for the Southern Company, parent company for electric companies in several states.
"The greatest challenge we have is getting the word out that this industry exists and that it is in need of quality people," Garrard said. "Unless they have a friend or family member in the drilling business, it's rare to find anyone who knows anything about the drilling industry. Something we've got to do is come up with a means to market the industry and what it does to increase the number of people involved in it and who would like to try it as a career. We've also got to be able to find a way to go and be able to locate individuals who may be interested in this industry,"
Roger E. Renner has a contrasting opinion on the reasons for the labor shortage. "The labor shortage has been created because we can't afford to pay the men enough. If we paid $45 per hour, do you think there would be a shortage?
"We can't afford to pay more because we don't charge enough for the work we do. It's almost as if we have an imaginary sign hanging around our neck saying 'We Work For Food,'" said Renner, the newly-elected president of the National Ground Water Association and president of E.H. Renner and Sons in Elk River, MN.
Renner added the best place for a drilling contractor to find new employees is to hire those already in the business and pay them enough to retain them. "You need to pay $20 to $30 per hour to get a good employee to stay because they can make more money and have better benefits at a lower-risk job. With the unemployment rate at 3%, the only ones out there looking for work are the ones who can't get a job elsewhere, and you're hiring them to do a very dangerous job."
Renner's sentiments are echoed by Roy Yoder, a drilling contractor and Master Groundwater Contractor from Montezuma, GA, where unemployment is high.
"I live in Macon County, GA, which is typically in the top 10 and usually in the top five in the state in unemployment and yet we still can't find anybody who wants to do this kind of work. Either they don't like to work or don't want to work where you're freezing in winter and frying in summer," he said. "A lot of them also don't get any fulfillment from getting somebody something they need, like water, and getting paid to do it. The service attitude isn't there much anymore."
One group working to help offset the 21st century labor crunch is the Resources Drilling and Blasting Program at Sir Sandford Fleming College's School of Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences in Lindsay, Ontario, Canada. The school offers a complete two-year drilling-related curriculum and recently added a horizontal directional drilling program. Gord Bailey, program coordinator, said it can handle up to 120 students at a time and has been filled to capacity for several years.
"When one of our students decides what kind of drilling work he wants to do and where in North America he wants to work, all he has to do is pick up a phone book, make a few calls, and he will have a job," Bailey said.
"It must be very frustrating to contractors who have the money to buy equipment and who have all the customers they can handle and can't find people who want to put in the time and make the commitment the drilling industry requires. A lot of the people they hire don't realize they are going to work so hard, put in such long hours and get so dirty," Taylor said. "People want to work in an office and drive a Porsche, not work hard and drive a pick up truck."
He added contractors need to seek out workers who have some idea about the kinds of work they will be doing, who are trainable, have good communications skills so they can talk to customers and contractors, and be able to write legible reports that will be acceptable if they are ever used as evidence in court case.
Taylor said employees also must understand unique aspects of the drilling industry's work. "If you hire a person who has run a backhoe he can see what's happening on it when he moves his hands to make the machine do something, but you can't see what a drill bit is doing underground and it's quite a long learning curve for them to get a grasp on that concept,"
"If and when the economy slows down, contractors can be more selective. The word we get is that contractors are just trying to find people period," Taylor said.