Breaking the Mold

Women HDD OperatorsIn the construction industry, the traditional imagery features rugged landscapes and tough, dirt-covered men. It is viewed as a masculine pursuit, made for those willing to work the long hours in the sweltering heat and frigid cold.

Kristine Toews did not let these preconceptions get in her way. She walked away from a job working as an administrative assistant to chase a new passion.

“A friend of mine worked here and I inquired about the job. They gave me a phone interview and two days later I moved from where I was living and started on the hydro vac,” Toews says. “I really had no clue about the industry, but it was one of those things where you see an opportunity to grow and learn some skills, so I took it.”

A New Office

Without even meeting her, the company hired Toews to be the newest crewmember at Cros-Man Direct Underground Ltd.  Cros-Man is a small locally owned company in southwest Manitoba, Canada, established in February 2004 with only two employees. Today, it has 16 employees on staff and divide the workforce among hydro vac truck crews, drill crews and a flow lining crew.

It wasn’t long before Toews was making a good impression and took after the job like any other dedicated worker. Dallas Coulter took notice of her work ethic and exuberance for even the most difficult and demanding jobs — a testament to her desire to learn and work her way up the ladder. Toews worked away, learning every aspect of the business. After two years working on a hydro-excavation rig, she was offered the opportunity to become a horizontal directional drill (HDD) operator.

“We first had Kristine on the mud-mixing side of the drill crew, and she showed a lot of interest there. When we had an opening for an operator position, I asked her to come in and see if she wanted to try it out,” Coulter says.

The new opportunity led to an array of emotions for Lewis. She was grateful for the chance to prove herself, but also faced apprehension about being behind the controls.

“When I got started, it was actually pretty stressful, because it’s an expensive piece of equipment and there are lots of moving parts. Everything was very foreign to me and I didn’t want to mess anything up, but I was focused on making a good first impression and doing a good job,” Toews says.

Upon completing a number of training programs and putting her acumen for HDD operation on display, the new operator steadily saw her role grow. Coulter and the rest of the team at Cros-Man gave Toews longer and more difficult bores. As the responsibilities expanded, so did the challenges.

“I think the most difficult job I’ve had up to this point was a time when we were trying to pull a casing through really rocky ground; big boulders, rocks with some clay between them. We had to do three shots, pulling 9-in. casings through incredibly rocky ground,” Toews says.

“You get caught up in those rocks. You have to pre-ream the holes a couple of times at different sizes. There were a few times we got stuck and had to try a few things to make it through. When we finally got through, it took a lot longer than what we had originally planned, but we got it done.”

Samantha KotylakA Labor of Love

“You have to be willing to get in the mud, be willing to get dirty and put off all your insecurities. You have to be willing to start at the bottom, get down in the trenches; you have to start at the bottom in order to be able to appreciate it when you get up a little higher,” Toews says.

“It’s a matter of having the tenacity to be able to prove it to yourself day in, day out. Then you can say to yourself ‘Yeah, I can do this and I’m going to do it, regardless of what anyone else says or thinks.’ It has to be you who makes the decision ultimately,” Toews says.

Her determined work ethic is a trait that companies like Cros-Man are finding it hard to come by; those individuals who are willing to get dirty and work in tough conditions without complaining.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find people who have the attitude like Kristine, who are willing to start at the bottom and get a little dirty first. It’s hard to find people who are willing to work their way up and don’t just want to step in right away and be the operator without knowing the right stuff,” Coulter says.

In spite of the rigorous nature of HDD drilling, Toews has thrived in the gritty, unglamorous environment. It has given her an appreciation for the arduous yet intricate nature of directional drilling.

“People out here don’t care about whether you have the nicest, shiniest truck; they want to hear how much experience you’ve had and that you’ve lived it. It’s not enough to just read about it and say you know it; you have to live the life,” Toews says.

Even though she is just two years into her stint as a directional drill operator, Toews has fallen in love with the job. She has broken through the stereotypes and is enjoying the spoils of a day behind the drill.

“I love being outside; I love the change of scenery. Ninety percent of the time you go to a different job site every day and you meet new people. Each day you learn more about yourself and what you can withstand. I like being able to learn and find out about myself.”

Providing for her Family

A change of scenery is exactly what Samantha Kotylak was chasing. After seven years of working as a bartender, Kotylak knew she needed a lifestyle change — it wasn’t just for her.

“I am a single mother of a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old. I just couldn’t do the late-night work anymore, and this was a great opportunity to go after something in which I have always had an interest,” Kotylak says.

Kotylak had known about the directional drilling long before she became an HDD operator. Her father, Tony, worked in the industry and was the first one to spark her interest. When he was brought in to be the manager of the day-to-day drill operations for a new company, a window of opportunity opened for Samantha.

Started in August 2013, H&G Horizontal Drilling came to fruition via a new partnership of two businessmen in Virden, Manitoba — Kotylak’s hometown. The company was established to provide flow line and electrical services to the oilfields; they also provide drilling for the installation of water lines, sewers and electricity for homeowners.

Shortly after the business launch, Samantha Kotylak was given the chance to step into the seat of a drill.
“My father and I went down and did some training so I could prove that I could do it. I was determined to succeed. Then after I tried it and really enjoyed it, I was hired because I took to it quickly and just loved being out there,” Kotylak says.

Even though they have only been working for a few months, Kotylak has already encountered a handful of challenges. One of the earliest jobs was drilling a 1,400-ft shot and then making a 90-degree turn. Despite the challenges, Kotylak steadied her nerves and remained confident enough to do the bore quickly and efficiently.

“We can’t see the head while we are drilling, and it amazes me what we can do with something that we can’t see. The job is a challenge, but we pride ourselves on speed and accuracy,” Kotylak says.

Taking pride in her work and being able to do something different every day has motivated the young operator to keep striving for more.

“The most memorable job for me so far was the first shot I did on my own and how proud I was. I am most proud of the fact that I have proven myself just like anybody else would have,” Kotylak says.

The work only gets more and more challenging, but it hasn’t deterred her spirit. As the work schedule gets busier and the shots get longer, Kotylak remains upbeat and welcomes the rigors of the job.

Whether it’s the desire to chase a new challenge or find a new career path for the sake of a family, these women are breaking through the preconceptions and pioneering a new path. Kristine Toews and Samantha Kotylak are both proving that the directional drilling industry is anything but a man’s world. Their work ethic and passion has become a model of success for women and men alike.

Darren Cline is a features writer for Two Rivers Marketing, Des Moines, Iowa.

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