It’s often said (though not necessarily true) that a shark has to keep swimming to breathe. I think about education in the same terms: If I stop learning, surely I must not be breathing.

Growing up in a mid-sized Rustbelt town, I learned early on about the legend of the shop job. Grandfathers and uncles walked out of high school and traded diplomas for time cards at a factory making parts to feed the ravenous auto industry supply chain. I also learned that, for those born after about 1968 or 1969, the shop job was just that: a legend. Lucky me, born in ’73.

This meant entering a changing workforce that valued a lifelong openness to new skills. Unlike my Rustbelt forebears, I didn’t have the luxury of riding a diploma to retirement with a comfortable pension. I went to college. I learned new skills as my field changed and evolved. Even today, I keep learning and changing both professionally and personally.

My path — through college to an office job — may not be yours. When I graduated high school, people called me “college material.” I wore it with a sense of pride. That pride, though, often comes by defining down the prospects of people who don’t go to college. “Not college material” too often conjures images of people working menial, dead-ender jobs. That sense of looking down on people who work with their hands puts everyone at a disadvantage.

Plus, it’s not really the “college” aspect of my path that matters most. We’ve all heard stories of people who dropped out of high school or college and made a success of themselves in business. What was their secret? The same thing I’ve tried to practice all my working career: an openness to learning new skills when (or preferably before) the old skills are no longer viable. Successful people all share a deep drive to make themselves better.

Again, my path ain’t necessarily yours. Whether people call you “college material” or “not college material,” education still means the difference between moving ahead and standing still. The workforce of today and the skills it demands haven’t stopped moving, and probably won’t. Why would you stop when everything else moves so fast? How many of you would still pursue continuing education if state licensing didn’t require it? You work hard on the jobsite, but do you work on yourself? Do you go beyond CEUs and read about techniques and trends in the industry? I hope so.

No matter who you are — whether you run your own drilling company or you’re the peon doing the dirtiest jobs on the jobsite — educating yourself is crucial. That’s just the way things are now. That diploma isn’t enough. That apprenticeship isn’t enough. That bachelor’s degree isn’t enough. Learning is like breathing. Want to keep moving forward? Keep learning. Keep swimming.

Educational Tips

Ongoing learning doesn’t have to be expensive. Try these options:

  • Industry associations: Many readers are familiar with CEUs offered by these groups. They also offer members white papers, books and other resources specific to the industry.
  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs): These Web-based courses are often given by college professors or other specialists in a field. Want to learn more about geology? Google “MOOC geology” and find a course. Some MOOCs are free. Others have a nominal charge.
  • Audiobooks and podcasts: I’m in my car probably an hour a day. Over the course of a few years, I’ve listened to an MBA’s worth of business podcasts. Do I have an MBA? No. Could I hold a conversation with an MBA and not sound like an idiot? Yes. Podcasts are free. Most libraries let you check out audiobooks for free, too.

What do you think? What’s your take on lifelong learning? Let me know. Send an email to

Stay safe out there, drillers.