How did you learn the drilling trade? Let me guess: You studied in a book and, magically, when you got out into the field, it all came together as in a kind of immaculate well-installation conception?

Not true, is it? That’s not your experience. In fact, that’s not anyone’s experience.

You may have reference books. Books may hint at what to expect when that bit hits an unfamiliar formation or an unexpected void. Books may help you understand what goes on in the aquifer or how to set a screen. But drillers don’t really learn until they’re on the rig. Many hours get spent working as a driller’s helper, or watching a dad or uncle ease up the weight on the string to deal with a change 200 feet below ground that he’s learned to feel. That’s the experience I hear over and over from drillers young and old. We learned by being in the field, seeing and doing.

Why would we expect regulators or the folks making drilling products to be any different? This month, columnist Brock Yordy tackles that topic (page 16). The kind of learning I’m talking about and he talks about — learning face to face standing 2 inches deep in mud — can convey things a book never could. That benefits everyone.

Yordy calls it “tribal.” Joining the tribe means an induction by another tribe member. A would-be driller learns by working with a driller. The industry keeps itself going this way. And that works if the goal is to succeed in passing hard-won know-how from one generation to the next. But it doesn’t work if the goal is to push the industry forward and help make better products and better regulations.

Let’s take regulators as an example. How many times have drillers gotten an inspection on a job and thought, “This is b******t. This guy’s just rubber-stamping our work. He doesn’t actually know anything about how to install a well.”

It can be a fair assessment. Often, inspectors come from completely different stock and backgrounds than the people whose work they inspect. The perception, often, is they’re “book” people. They know their regulations and their offsets, but wouldn’t know a sloppy grouting job if they tripped and planted their face in it. They don’t do what drillers do. They haven’t put their time in ankle deep in mud. They’re not part of the drilling tribe — they just observe it and criticize from the outside.

Ask yourself, why is that? What could change that?

Yordy suggests a more inclusive way to treat the skills and knowledge passed between drillers. The best way toward that goal is the same path many drillers took to become drillers themselves. Put people on the jobsite. Hold demos and other events. Invite sanitarians. Invite policy-makers. Invite company reps — not just the sales guys, but the engineers that make the products you use. Set up. Get the fluids mixed. Drill. Trip out. Case. Grout. Show the non-tribe members how much work is involved. Answer their questions. Point out areas where you think regulations need work or clarification. Show the people who make the products you use just how you use them in the field.

We can complain about regulators all we want. Ditto with products that don’t quite work as designed or advertised. But complaining doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t give us clearer, more sensible regulations. It doesn’t give us better products. Only feedback will. Isn’t it time to expand the tribe a little bit, for the sake of improving the industry?

What do you think? Send an email to

Stay safe out there, drillers.