Our greatest challenge in the drilling industry is not how to find and obtain natural resources, be it water, oil, gas or precious minerals, but how do we find the next generation of professionals. Ironically, the challenge for professionals who focused their education on the drilling industry is, how do they get hired in the drilling industry? These new students studied environmental science, geology and hydrology. Often, the easy path is when the minerals, and oil and gas markets are scaling up. When the market is right, these companies hire every able bodied student who studied geoscience.

The primary reason these students end up in minerals, oil and gas is the hiring, onboarding and training processes. These processes are designed to hire candidates with little professional experience and create competent team members. The same can be said about the geotechnical, environmental and construction drilling industries. They are always searching for educated employees that can identify specific geologic formations that will have an impact on the success of a project.

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All of the above industries offer amazing experiences and fruitful careers. But if you asked the students of 2017 who studied environmental science, geology and hydrology what they wanted to do with their education, they would say, “I want to work in groundwater. I want to help protect our environment and groundwater. I want to be in the water industry.” So why does the groundwater industry have such a hard time recruiting young professionals that want to work in water? I believe our “hard time” is directly related to how the water well industry recruits, trains and passes on general industry knowledge.

Water well drilling is one of the oldest industries, and we use one of the oldest recruitment methods: nepotism. It has worked perfectly for hiring friends and family. The nepotism hiring practice is continued by an in-field training program that it is expected to take multiple years to gain vital experience. It may be an acceptable training program for sons, daughters and family friends that can spend weekends and the summers growing up on the back of a rig or in the office learning the industry. However, we continue to see the age gap widen as talented prospects choose jobs outside of the water industry. These alternative jobs offer training programs that develop new employees in several months opposed to years. The water well industry can develop similar training programs.

Beyond Oil and Gas

Professional development for the groundwater industry is limited compared to other drilling industries like minerals and oil and gas. If you search the Internet for minerals or oil and gas college programs, you will find hundreds of options. If you search water or groundwater college programs, you will find less than a dozen. Yes, a student can study geology or hydrology at many excellent arts and science colleges throughout North America, but that does not mean they will learn about industrial drilling and water well construction. The classroom is a great start to build a student’s foundation for drilling, but without practical field experience, that foundation remains one-dimensional. A blend of field and classroom is what it takes to create well-rounded students.

Options for drilling field experience are limited to where a student is located in the country and to the time of year. They can attend a field day hosted by a state association. These field days are a good experience, but one day is never enough to cover all that is required. There are a few week-long courses organized throughout the country. Baroid IDP offers a week-long water well “Mud School” in January every year and has done so for the past 54 years. GEFCO’s “Basic Drilling Fundamentals” just celebrated its 20th year. Baroid IDP and GEFCO will team up for a one-week field school in October 2017. Beyond one-week schools, there are several universities throughout the country that offer semester drilling courses.

The oldest and longest running college semester drilling course is taught by my alma mater, Western Michigan University (WMU) — Go Broncos! They are one of six NGWA-recognized water well drilling schools. WMU offers two, six-week Hydrogeology Field Courses every summer. This is WMU’s 30th year teaching students in the field. Specialist Thomas Howe organizes and teaches the program alongside WMU faculty member Matt Reeves and Richard Laton, California State University Fullerton associate professor of geological science. In the past 30 years, the program has had many talented instructors, but most notably WMU faculty members Duane Hampton and Bill Sauck. The program is designed for undergraduate students, graduate students and industry professionals. That is right: Any industry operator is welcome to enroll and participate in all six weeks of the course or choose individual weeks to develop professionally. When I asked specialist Howe what WMU’s goal was for the six-week course, he said:

“WMU’s goal is to teach the practical skills necessary to investigate and characterize complex hydrogeological systems successfully. It is the oldest and longest running six-week program of its kind. The course is an intensive, hands-on field experience emphasizing applied hydrogeology and state-of-the-art techniques for the evaluation, sampling and characterization of groundwater systems.”

Each week’s module is a one-credit, standalone course and may be taken individually, or collectively, although preference is given to candidates interested in all six modules. These are the modules in order from week one to week six:

  1. Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER)
  2. Surface Geophysics
  3. Principles and Practices of Aquifer Testing
  4. Principles and Practices of Groundwater Sampling and Monitoring
  5. Principles of Well Drilling and Installation
  6. Remediation Design and Implementation

Each year the course has attendees from universities around the country as well as international students. WMU creates a perfect blend of classroom and field training. Specialist Howe coordinates with local environmental, geotechnical and water well companies to ensure his students get the best experience possible.

Teaching the Next Generation

This year, I assisted in teaching week five, “Principles of Well Drilling and Installation.” The well drilling week is a favorite among the students. The week starts out with the students experiencing cable tool, followed by mud rotary, wireline coring and auguring. The students finish the week by hand auguring and bailing a well of their own. Teaching drilling is a challenge because primary knowledge is transferred in the field.

Thomas Howe and his team did a fantastic job coordinating with Katz Well Drilling, the U.S. Geological Survey and West Michigan Drilling for field experience trips. Katz Well Drilling of Battle Creek, Mich., taught the students about mud rotary through a tour of their shop, explaining all the equipment and components that make up a water well. Next, Katz took the students to a residential water well project site, where the Katz team drilled and completed a 60-foot water well. Through it all, the students are encouraged to interact with the drillers to better understand the process of drilling a well.

Continuing in the week, we drilled wireline with the state geological survey in southwest Michigan. The goal on the wireline core hole was to log cores and evaluate the change in geologic formations. Before the week finished, we auger drilled two monitoring wells with West Michigan Drilling. In addition, the Summer Two Field Course students will attend a drilling day hosted by Stock Drilling.

I was not the only industry professional to participate during that week. Don Baron with Johnson Well Screen taught the students about screen sizing, sieve analysis and water well development. As Baron spoke, I grabbed my notebook and took notes with the students. His knowledge and professional experience are legendary. As you can see, the drilling week of the field course puts students right in the middle of the field, allowing them to gain real field experience before graduation.

It was an honor to return to Western Michigan University as a guest instructor. I enjoyed every moment in the classroom and in the field passing on what I have learned. My WMU Bronco education has served me well in the 12 years since graduating, and it was awesome to give back.

Looking Ahead

WMU has big plans for the next 30 years of the field course. Thomas Howe and WMU staff want the course to evolve. The goal is to find a property with acreage that has surface water features, varied topography and land coverage. This property would have housing for the students, creating an immersive field camp experience. More hydrology and drilling topics could be covered by saving time with an onsite classroom. The drill could be minutes away opposed to commuting offsite to drill sites. The property would be governed by a shared committee of scientists, researchers, land protection specialists, advisors and faculty. A field camp property would ease the stress in finding a jobsite for all the required forms of drilling to be completed in the six-week field course.

The future of the groundwater industry depends on the recruitment and training of the next generation of young professionals. As an industry, we must remain active in higher education for new talent. As a company seeking new talent, you should hire students that have completed Western Michigan University’s Hydrogeology Field Course or similar college-level courses. The WMU course follows through on all that it promised and is an intensive, hands-on field experience. The field course staff prepares new hydrogeologists and geologists to enter the drilling industry — especially the groundwater industry — with confidence and insight.

For More Information

Visit wmich.edu/geology/academics/hydrogeology-field-course to learn more about WMU’s program and how to sign up or get involved.