Next-generation drilling industry professionals are a precious resource. At trade shows and in contractors’ offices, veterans talk a lot about the skills gap and the greying of the industry. Demo events, like one National Driller attended recently in Flint, Mich., can help. 

The demo was part of one of two six-week summer Hydrogeology Field Courses offered by Western Michigan University (WMU). The program, developed in 1987, give students the opportunity to see, hear and touch aspects of drilling they might not otherwise get exposure to. The Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences accepts students in different disciplines — including geology and hydrogeology — from around the nation. They study aquifer testing, groundwater sampling and monitoring, and remediation.

The week in which National Driller attended was dedicated to the principle and practice of well drilling and installation. The week included a sonic drilling demonstration at the Cascade Environmental office in Flint. The demo gave the students a first-hand view of the field work an environmental services company does, giving some of them their first peek at the drilling industry.

“It’s really an individualistic program,” says Samantha Huntoon, a senior in geoscience at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. “It provides a lot opportunities that other ones don’t.”

She compared it to other summer programs that her peers might go on, pointing out just how specialized it is. In fact, in addition to sonic, during that third week of their program students were also scheduled to see hollow-stem drilling, rotary drilling with mud and air, cable-tool drilling and direct push in action.

‘Broadening People’s Perspectives’

Cascade Environmental was happy to host the event. A big challenge for their recruitment team is showing that, college or not, the drilling industry is a viable and lucrative option. Demos are a good tool for that.

“A lot of times, we’re pushing kids to go get their four-year degree when they could have just as successful of a career doing a vocational trade or learning a skilled trade as they would going to a four-year college,” says Jessica Howard, the company’s talent acquisition manager. “I think a lot of it is outreach, broadening people’s perspectives.”

Howard says the negative reputation of oil and gas drilling in a lot of young people’s minds can unfairly cross over into other drilling sectors, like environmental.

“There’s not a lot of general knowledge about what we do,” she says. “People hear ‘drilling,’ and they think oil and gas. But that’s not really what we do. We’re an environmental services company. We have a big part in cleaning up the environment. The big challenge is getting the word out there about what Cascade really does do — trying to kill that oil and gas stigma that people have when they think of a drilling company.

And, also, I think it’s a cultural shift of getting people more interested in skilled trades. That would have a lot to do with growing the labor pool, the talent pool that we have.”

Neil Mairs, president of Solutions Recruiting, helped with the event.

“Two-thirds of students that graduate from a four-year school have debt,” he says. Boosting interest in trades can help young people who don’t consider themselves college material avoid that debt.

“For 30 years, my generation has told our kids to go to a four-year school,” Mairs says. “But there’s a lot of jobs to be had that are going to pay more, that are going to be less debt. The challenge that the drilling industry faces really is because it’s small and fairly well contained. It’s got the same skilled labor gap that a lot of other places have.”

That gap, where veterans are retiring without a good pool of replacements in the pipeline, should concern the whole industry, regardless of whether the jobs going unfilled are in water wells, geotech, environmental, or oil and gas.

“It’s not just, ‘Come work Cascade. Come see all the great things we do,’ ” Howard says. “It’s, ‘Take a look at this industry and where it’s headed and the impact that we really make.’”

Hands-on Analysis

Isaac Ramone, a senior in geology at Angelo State University, had heard about the WMU program from other students and decided to see for himself. Halfway through the six-week program, he liked what he saw.

“This is a very valuable skillset that we’re learning. … I wouldn’t get this kind of experience unless I was starting a career and actually getting in the workforce.”

Ramone is doing undergrad work in geophysics, so an afternoon of analyzing samples brought up by the crawler-mounted Terra Sonic rig appealed to him.

“I was surprised at how quick this technique is compared to a lot of others, like hollow stem augering,” Ramone says.

“A lot of it was mostly clay,” he added. “After about 50 feet, we hit the bedrock, which was sandstone. You could definitely tell the transition zone. It had a couple feet of transition, and then it totally changed composition into the sandstone.”

Ramone, Huntoon and the other students made careful observations in their field notes journals.

“We were looking at the density, moisture content, the color and the composition of the soils and rocks, and then how they changed as we got deeper,” Huntoon says.

Looking Ahead

After graduation, Ramone plans to seek work with an engineering firm doing environmental remediation. Classmate Huntoon isn’t sure yet, but is following a path started in her family a few generations ago. Her grandfather drilled water wells in Wisconsin. Her mother is a hydrogeologist and her father is a geologist.

“I’m thinking about maybe doing something with water resource management,” she says. “I’m not sure which direction I want to go in yet, which is why this field school can provide me that opportunity to find out.”

That opportunity is just the point for everyone involved. Whether it’s on-site demos of drilling technology, trade shows, or outreach to vocational schools and colleges, the ultimate goal is to widen the talent pool, particularly among younger prospects.

“This industry is perfectly suited for millennials,” Mairs says. “First of all, you’re working on the environment. You’re working with a high level of technology. You’re working on certifications that are portable, so you’re building your career. It’s outdoors. … For the right profile, it’s perfect.”

Howard agrees. “You’re getting safety training. You’re going to be a driller. You’re going to get your CDL. The amount of transferrable skills is tremendous.”

Programs like WMU’s Hydrogeology Field Courses are one way to give young workers a taste of what the drilling industry can offer, regardless of whether they are on a college path — like the students attending this demo — or not.

“It’s something they can make a career out of,” Howard says. “I think that’s important. A lot of people don’t necessarily see that in skilled trades. If you’re a plumber, you’re a plumber. If you’re an electrician, you’re an electrician. If you’re a driller, you’re a driller. But that’s not really the case. There is a clear career path and progression that you can have in this field. It’s just that people don’t really know about it.”