HDD Roundtable Addresses Workforce, Locates, Bidding

A panel of directional drilling contractors held a wide-ranging discussion of opportunities and issues facing the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) industry during the annual HDD Roundtable at the 2017 UCT Show in Fort Worth TX.

Panelists were Andy Blokker, vice president of operations and chief operator officer of Avertex Utility Solutions Inc., Amaranth, Ontario; Aaron Graff, president and CEO of Dakota Utility Contractors, Ennis, TX; and Michael N. Thomas, president of Alltech Directional Drilling Inc., Happy Valley, OR.

The roundtable was moderated by Ron Halderman, P.W., director of HDD for the Mears Group, and Robert Carpenter, editor-in-chief of Underground Construction magazine. An audience of approximately 80 asked questions and offered comments during discussions.

Among the topics covered were:

  • Finding and retaining good employees
  • Problems with locating existing utilities
  • Contracts and the bidding process
  • The need for a “voice” to represent the HDD industry

Hiring, retaining workers

Hiring quality employees was a major topic of discussion at the 2016 roundtable, and again in 2017. Panelists and audience participants agreed that finding and retaining good employees is a continuing problem.

“We have employees who have been with us 10 to 15 years,” said Aaron Graff. “But there’s something different about young people entering the job market today. They start work and after a little training expect to advance quickly.”
Mike Thomas said Alltech has been fortunate to hire and keep good people.

“To retain good employees,” he said, “it’s necessary to create and maintain a good work environment, and that includes providing the best equipment for them to use. One thing we do to make it worthwhile working for us is paying monthly bonuses. We expect employees to do the best job they can and reward them accordingly.”    Andy Blokker said Avertex prefers to hire young farm hands.

“They are accustomed to hard work, have been around equipment, and have a good work ethic,” he explained. “We train our people to work the way that we want things done. Then they work their way up the ladder. It’s worked out very well for us.”
However, Blokker agreed that younger workers today do expect to advance faster than employees hired several years ago.
“After learning the basics,” he said, “some seem to think they immediately should be made an HDD operator.”

Problems with locates

All of the panelists said one of the most serious issues they face is getting proper locating and marking for the positions of existing utilities. A system is in place to make locates before construction begins. The consensus of the panel was that completing this essential step to prevent accidental utility hits should not be the responsibility of contractors.

Panelists said the One-Call system – the backbone of marking existing utilities on job sites – is not working effectively.
“One-Call performance is not good and continues to get worse,” said Thomas. “One-Call locates often are made late, or don’t show up at all. We find many locates that are made by One-Call are inaccurate. One-Call is understaffed and overworked, often leaving us to make locates. Much of Alltech’s current work is in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex of Texas.”

Graff said when One-Call is late or doesn’t make locates within the prescribed time frame, the result is downtime for contractors.

“We’re prepared for that with a person who does locates for us – that’s all he does,” Graff continued. “The area where we work – North Texas – is very big, and many locate people are poorly trained and there’s a big turnover of employees.”
Blokker said the seasons impact locates in Canada.

“In winter, work slows and locating organizations have to lay off workers,” he explained. “Then when spring comes, it takes them a while to gear up. If a project plan doesn’t show locations of utilities, we have to go back to the owner. It’s taking too long to get locates – that’s our biggest concern.”

One suggested solution was to more aggressively hold the parties at fault accountable when locates aren’t made accurately or on time.

A member of the audience mentioned Common Ground Alliance D.I.R.T. reports as a resource. Indeed, D.I.R.T reports gather vital information that identifies root causes of accidental utility strikes. While important, the panelists’ directed their comments to immediate issues and solutions which, in time, D.I.R.T information should help address.

Bidding, contracts

Project specifications and the bidding process drew attention from the panel and members of the audience, as well. There was general agreement that contractor input could help project owners avoid writing into project specifications requirements that will be difficult or impossible to accomplish.

“Contractor involvement often could avoid designs where a product simply can’t be put where the project owner wants it,” said Thomas.

Graff agreed, and added that the experience of a company and its crews should be a factor in the bidding process, and who is awarded the project.
“Also,” he said, “customers often don’t understand how various soils can affect the cost of a project, and contractors can help them understand that.”

It was suggested it would be helpful for HDD contractors to have an engineer on staff, or access to an engineer, who could represent their interests.

Blocker of Avertex Utility Solutions said his company has the capability of providing engineering, as well as constructing projects, and that is a valuable asset.

However, the panel agreed the cost of a staff engineer is something most contractors cannot afford.

Industry voice

The lack of a unified voice representing the HDD industry was discussed at length.

Graff noted that while there is no “HDD” association, there are industry organizations representing utility and pipeline construction that do promote the benefits and interests of HDD.

“For any industry association to be effective, it must have the support of the members it represents,” said Graff. “Many smaller HDD contractors don’t have the time be active with associations. It would take the support of larger contractors and suppliers to make an HDD association work.”

Blokker said an effort had been made in Canada to launch such an organization, but it was difficult to find prospective members who would support it.

“It takes time,” said Blokker, “and I speak from experience. I’m on the board of a national industry association, and to be committed to an industry association is very time consuming, something small contractors find difficult to provide.
“Our effort in Canada needed someone to step up and take it to the next level,” he said. “To be effective, I believe an industry association needs a paid executive, in most cases. Volunteer members do not have time to manage an association.”
However, both panelists and several audience members observed that an HDD advocate association, or at least increased HDD representation by existing associations, is needed to address the needs of the drilling industry.

The next HDD Roundtable will be held at UCT 2018, Jan. 30 – Feb. 1, in New Orleans.

UCT 2018 in New Orleans

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