Ask HDD contractors, they will tell you there is not a shortage of work in North America, but there is a shortage of operators to do the work. This hampers a company’s ability to add additional crews and in turn purchase new equipment. The bulk of this work is thanks to a sustainable uptick in fiber installations across North America as well as gas distribution where utilities are aggressively working to upgrade the aging infrastructure.
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In the last nine months, Vermeer and Ditch Witch – two of the most recognized names in the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) industry – have stepped up their training efforts to help combat this shortage. Vermeer with its HDD Circuit program and Ditch Witch with its Ditch Witch Certified Training are both designed with feedback from the industry.
“We’ve trained since we started making drills, but what makes this different is that this is geared to those without drilling skills,” says Tony Bokhoven, lifecycle training manager at Vermeer. “In the past we would have gone out to a jobsite and looked over the operators shoulder and taught him how to drill. You have a lot of risk there…and typically it takes longer to train an operator.”
Launched in November 2015, the HDD Circuit program is a two-week, hands-on training that takes place at Vermeer’s Pella, Iowa, headquarters. Vermeer covers all aspects of drill operation from walking the bore plan, potholing, creating the bore plan, mixing the mud, proper drill maintenance and actual hands-on time with the drill.
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“We can take them much deeper into the training than we could on the jobsite,” Bokhoven says. “We teach them how to be a driller; the training goes beyond the drill’s functions. We get them to understand what is going on downhole.”
At this time, the tuition-based program is by contractor request only and geared to new operators who have never been on a drill, as well as those who want formalized training to refine their HDD skill. Vermeer is scheduling one eight-person class per month. Keeping the class size low allows the students to be divided into typical jobsite-sized crews and rotate through each aspect of an HDD project.
“It’s as real life as you can get,” Bokhoven says. “In addition to the 72 hours of training, students take a written and hands-on drilling test with a minimum score required, to pass the two weeks of training.”
At this time, 40 people have gone through the HDD Circuit program. Other training opportunities might be made available down the road for individuals looking to receive HDD training. As for those experienced operators, Bokhoven says that Vermeer provides a more condensed training program that is facilitated by their localized dealers.
For its part, the Ditch Witch Certified Training program melds both online courses and HDD simulator training to create a comprehensive training package.
“Ditch Witch Certified Training is not just the HDD modules; it is a platform for training across our entire product line,” says Greg Wolfe, Ditch Witch director of training. “The HDD operational training is the first out of the gate and most important in today’s environment.”
The six online courses cover about eight to 10 hours of material, depending on learners pace and covers best practices, HDD job overview, drill fluids, tracking, drill pipe characteristics and tooling.
“These, we believe are the six cores subjects we would teach if we sat down and had a class here in Perry, Oklahoma,” Wolfe said. “We have also found that these courses are being used and recommended as a prerequisite by some of our large institutional buyers for their new operators before they start their jobsite training or training at a Ditch Witch dealership.”
Enhancing the knowledge gained by completing the online portion – available at ditchwitch.com/training or at the local Ditch Witch dealer – is the new Ditch Witch HDD simulator at the dealerships.
“It increases the level of performance and safety an operator has before he or she ever gets on a jobsite,” Wolfe says. “This does not replace the on-the-job training but it absolutely puts somebody in a much greater position to be safe and productive once they are on the site.”
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It is Ditch Witch’s belief that training is best performed at the place of purchase and region of use. When Ditch Witch first offered HDD training, it was hands-on in Perry, which was fine when the company was moving 500 to 1,000 units a year. As the industry and demand grew, efficiently offering consistent training became difficult. The new Ditch Witch Certified Training program offers a consistent training product across the globe with regional issues handled by the dealer. The company is in the process of translating the online training and simulators to 15 languages.
“All of these training aids are simply that, training aids. They do not replace training at the jobsite or a dealership backyard where you are actually drilling,” Wolfe says. “These accelerate the learner’s position and confidence on a jobsite.”
Since its official launch in February, Wolfe says the company has trained in the thousands of people online with a 10 to 15 percent completion rate. Looking ahead, Ditch Witch might collaborate with schools to offer the program, including the HDD simulator, as well.
The newly trained operators receive certificates of completion at the end of both the Vermeer HDD Circuit program and Ditch Witch’s online program.
The Next Step
Training is important, especially from a safety, aspect to get operators acclimated to the equipment in a controlled setting, but that is not always enough especially when dealing in the increasingly crowded underground space, according to John F. Hendershot, CEO of Hastings, Michigan-based Dig-It Inc.
Dig-It, which does a lot of HDD work for natural gas projects, uses the Midwest Energy Association’s operator qualifications program to certify its workers to meet federal requirements.
Those requirements, Hendershot says only apply to the gas industry, but HDD operators are all working in the same space.
“Safety should not be taken lightly. There are a lot of dangers involved in what we do and there are a lot of things that can go wrong,” he says. “We need to make sure and equip our people in a way that, at the end of the day, they are arriving home in the same fashion that they came to the office. As an owner, I have an obligation to do this.”
Hendershot is also president of the Great Lakes Trenchless Association (GLTA), which recently created a Safety and Education Committee that is looking at a uniform operator qualifications standard that its membership can adopt.
“In my opinion, I don’t think training is enough. People are sent to training and if there is not a testing and evaluation behind it, the people tend to not pay as much attention and be vested into it as much,” Hendershot says. “That’s why eventually; the goal is to have an operator qualification program through GLTA whether it is with another organization, a college or career technical school. Something needs to be there as more than a training course…an actual continuing education piece.”
The committee is looking at five items:
- The creation of a uniform operating procedure for contractors.
- Creating training courses and minimal guideline for contractors
- Trying to set up partnerships with community colleges and vocational schools on trying to train and prepare the next generation of professionals within our industry.
- Assisting the contractors in obtaining resources such as MSDS reports, bore procedures, safety manuals, job safety analysis, tool Box talks, etc. in order it assist them in being able to operate safely and successfully.
- Partnering with suppliers and manufacturers in order to bring training to the contractors when they purchase a piece of equipment or a product in order to ensure that they use it in a way that is optimal in completing the task as well as safely.
“I feel that what we do has such a large and positive impact on our society. The infrastructure we install is an important part of everything we do in life. As one of my partners like to say, ‘We are dirt surgeons’. A surgeon has to navigate arteries to get a blood clot out. We are doing the same thing underground,” Hendershot says. “We have to navigate that crowded network with precision and not everyone can do this job. It is necessary to have the best-trained people, the best-qualified people doing this job. The people performing these jobs need to be experts and well-trained and that is why it’s important that all HDD contractors need to be trained and qualified.”