On countless occasions, I have found myself having a glass of wine with girlfriends fielding questions about my life in a small, family owned business in small-town Texas. The questions I am often asked are: “What’s it like to work for your dad?”; “What are the people like who work with you?”; “Do you have a hard time working with all men?”; “Do you have to wear boots and a hard hat every day?”; and “What is the hardest thing about your job?” I have so much fun entertaining them with stories about what it’s like to run a small business, how much fun it is to work for my dad, how hard it is to find “cute” PPE, and what it’s like to be bonded to your teammates in ways you never thought possible.

When it’s time to answer the question about the hardest thing about my job, the conversation always takes on a more serious tone. The hardest part of my job? It’s not bidding on jobs. It’s not successfully installing water wells. It’s not completing a well field. It’s not pump testing. It’s not even designing a custom well development program! The hardest part of my job is, without a doubt, recruiting and retaining quality employees who want to join and remain part of a small business.

My friends are in disbelief when I explain to them how difficult it is to find an employee who:

  • Has a Class A CDL with a clean driving record and three years of driving experience.
  • Is insurable under our commercial policy.
  • Has a spotless background check.
  • Is able to pass a drug test.
  • Has extensive equipment operating experience.
  • Has drilling experience (for water, not oil).
  • Is physically fit for duty.
  • Is willing to travel across the United States.
  • And is willing to work for a small business and wear many hats

Before I joined forces with my dad, he told me once when we were out for a long walk together in Austin, Texas, “Honey, you can go right over to that college and find 10 lawyers, 10 doctors, a million information technology folks, and 50 accountants, but I guarantee you that you will never find a water well driller.”

Being the stubborn daughter than I am, I secretly thought, “Challenge accepted. I’ll prove him wrong!”

Well, here I am, a mere five years later, swallowing my pride and admitting to dad and to the world, “You were right!”

I spend at least 50 percent of my time devoted to recruitment of new employees and retention of current employees. I search far and wide to find qualified candidates to join our team. I advertise all over the Internet, I perform online resume searches, I attend career fairs at local colleges, and I constantly remind our vendors that we are on the hunt for qualified people to join us.

When we finally find a qualified candidate to join us, I spend hours interviewing them by phone and in person. Sometimes, if they are not from Texas, we will Skype them, fly them in, and spend an entire day or two with them. Once we are ready to move forward, I will spend days crafting the offer letter, perfecting the onboarding process, asking questions about what type(s) of benefits they are interested in, enrolling them in our current benefit program(s), providing them with comprehensive safety training, issuing PPE and uniforms, enrolling them in our short service employee program, collecting all required paperwork, and generally welcoming them aboard. This is a time, financial and emotional investment by my entire company.

“As a small business, it’s not as if we have the time, equipment or personnel to set up a drilling rig and ask every potential hire to drill a test hole.”

– Ashley Foster

Sometimes, it all works out and the individual becomes an incredibly valuable member of our team for the long haul. Often, however, it seems that the commitment is only one-sided. In just the four short years since I joined the company, I have seen a dramatic and disappointing shift in the work force. It seems our workforce these days has no sense of loyalty, nor do they place value on the notion that one must crawl before one walks. Being a millennial myself, it pains me to think that this is the reality of my generation. It seems that individuals will join our team, work for 60 days, and then be genuinely surprised when they are not promoted to lead foreman or, better yet, CEO! I have had employees literally walk off the job after six or seven months with the chief complaint that they “haven’t been given a raise yet.” Others walk away at the drop of a hat for a “better offer from the oilfield.”

Others yet are frustrated and quit because they want to be foremen, but there’s no school I can send them to for the knowledge and experience they need to operate a 96,000-pound drilling rig … and know what to do when things don’t go as planned.

What is wrong with this picture, and what does it mean for the future?

We have an extensive benefit package that rivals some of the largest construction companies out there. We pay a competitive wage, and we have a friendly, family atmosphere. We take care of our employees, we know their families and we genuinely value them as members of our team.

I often ask myself, “What else can I possibly do?”

Surely we are not alone in this struggle.

As an industry, we are sorely lacking in terms of training programs and schools that teach the “art” of drilling a water well. Sure, we have the Southwest Mississippi Community College courses in water well drilling and we have the GEFCO drilling school, but I know, as well as you know, that a five- to 10-day course is not enough to teach a man everything we expect from a water well driller/foreman.

As a small business, it’s not as if we have the time, equipment or personnel to set up a drilling rig and ask every potential hire to drill a test hole in the back yard to see if he can do it!

These and many other struggles lead me to ask, “What’s going to happen to our industry when the true experts age out of the workforce?” Where is the next generation of industry leaders? How are we actively encouraging young men and women to get involved in the “water business?”

I don’t exactly know the answer to all these questions, but I definitely think an industry dialogue about how we can evolve with the workforce would be worthwhile. The water well drilling industry certainly does not have a reputation as “cutting edge” or “ahead of the times.” Perhaps if we started strategizing together, we would stumble upon some really innovative ways to develop our workforce for the future.