June 2016, Vol. 71 No. 6


Vermeer Kicks HDD Training Into High Gear

It’s well-documented that the construction industry is facing a severe labor crisis. Due to the strength of several core markets requiring dramatic increases in workforce, the underground utility infrastructure market is desperately seeking new skilled employees, particularly horizontal directional drilling (HDD) operators. HDD work requires a certain level of expertise which can make the difference between profit and loss on a project.

With the continued boom in telecommunications plus healthy gas and electric distribution markets, contractors are frantically seeking new personnel. But they are also wrestling with how to train new or inexperienced employees in a compact time frame yet comprehensive manner that can immediately place personnel into productive roles on the HDD jobsite. Even providing on-the-job training can be extremely difficult with time constraints and inconsistencies in the training curriculum. Clearly, an effective training program for HDD personnel could be extremely valuable to contractors.

With those kinds of industry stresses facing not only its customers but the entire HDD market, Vermeer Corporation has developed what they believe is at least the beginning of a training solution. While still growing and evolving, Vermeer personnel are hopeful they’ve created a program that can address overwhelming training demands for the HDD industry. Underground Construction recently spent a day at the second class of the new HDD Circuit Training school, held at Vermeer’s main campus in Pella, IA.

Program launch

Tony Bokhoven, Vermeer industrial life cycle training manager, leads a group that handles the company’s soft skill training, service training, sales training, service certification training for in-house technicians and new customer training. His department conceptualized and quickly developed what evolved into HDD Circuit Training. The program is an intensive, two-week HDD operator training program.
“We’re trying to create drillers, not employees limited to being just a locator, pot holer or operator,” Bokhoven explained. “The idea is that you know how all aspects work and how critical they are to each step of the job.

“This is a non-steel offering for our customers that we believe can be of tremendous benefit,” he added.

Historically, HDD manufacturers have shied away from this type of in-depth contractor training for a litany of reasons, including liability concerns and a preference to support dealer training efforts. But because the training issue has become so acute, Vermeer changed course and developed the HDD Circuit program.

“This was a big deal for us,” Bokhoven admitted. “Traditionally we only train our dealers. For us to come up with something that was not going to circumvent our dealers but work alongside them engaging the customers was a big step for this company. This is not just a factory program. We are walking hand in hand with our dealers.”

Bokhoven realizes the enormous significance of the program he helped invent. “Mark Core [Vermeer’s executive vice president and CMO] calls this a legacy program for the company – and it is. The company has identified that as a big priority,” he said.

“In my 18 years here, I’ve seen dozens of these programs come and go around the industry. But the reason why this is going to be successful is that everybody understands that it isn’t about generating profit,” he stressed. “It’s about the long-term stability of the industry. How is this going to affect the industry long-term and what value are we going to give to our customers? We recognized that we have to start creating value beyond yellow iron.”

Getting the first class launched in November 2015 was not without its challenges. Vermeer Customer Training Lead Dan Vroom, who was instrumental in developing the curriculum and addressing the many logistics necessary to launch the program, was left scrambling to find an adequate site for that inaugural class. He secured just enough land behind one of the manufacturing buildings and had to clear and level the area.

“It worked but it was pretty obvious that if we’re going to do this a lot, that ground wasn’t going to last very long,” Bokhoven pointed out. “We’re very thankful that the

Vermeer family has a lot of farm land around this area. Bob Vermeer [chair emeritus of the Vermeer Corporation Board of Directors] has some farm land a couple of miles north of here that we were hoping to obtain. In talking with us, he said ‘wouldn’t you rather be closer to your training place? How about 11.5 acres here?’ ”

“A guy like Bob Vermeer sees the value in what we’re doing and he’s willing to do whatever he can to support it. We’ve now got 11.5 acres adjacent to our campus. When I say this program is supported from the top down, I mean people like Bob, Mary Andringa [chair of the Vermeer Corporation Board of Directors] and Jason Andringa [Vermeer president and CEO] – they are all in on this deal. For us, that’s really cool and much appreciated.”


Another example of the willingness of Vermeer to invest in this program is equipment. The plan is to annually provide four new drills, fresh off the assembly line and complete with assorted support equipment and tooling, for use in the classes. After a year, the drills would most likely either go into the company’s demonstration fleet or sold to a dealer.

The HDD Circuit Training Course is two full weeks of hands-on training where “we ask people to throw out everything they know and start over to learn what we believe is the correct way – the best practices way,” Bokhoven said. “We really take them back through some of the basics.

“As we started laying the training program out, it became pretty clear that the best way to get students to understand the material was to create a jobsite, and put students through the paces as if they were working for a contractor each day. The beauty of this program is that we’re going to allow them to do it wrong – they can learn from their mistakes. Here at our site, there is no consequence if they do it wrong.”
Vroom added that the learning curb is steeper on the locating side of things.

“We teach the guys that the more utilities are going underground, the more it becomes critical to start using the underground space efficiently,” he said.

“We’ve got our own simulated area at the demo site with four buried utilities at various depths. The students have no idea where they utilities go or how deep they are. They have to physically map out where the utilities, then get a vacuum out for confirmation.”

The HDD Circuit program has training support from its industry partners. For example, Digital Control Inc. has an expert on site during much of the program to assist in locator training as does McLaughlin for vacuum excavator instruction.

For now, the plan is to hold one class a month with the exception of select “dark” months which will be used for evaluation and re-outfitting. Classes are already booked through July. “With that first class, there were a lot of ‘aha!’ moments,”
Bokhoven observed.

“Classes are limited to eight people so we can have four crews of two,” Bokhoven explained. “That way, the students can learn all aspects of HDD, both drilling and locating. We believe that, at least for the time being, if we do more than one class a month, we may be rushing things. We want to make sure that we are prepared for each class and don’t compromise quality of training.

“We know we can’t get everyone trained,” he continued. “But the ones we do train we want to have a really great experience. Right now, we’re really focusing on the quality of classes rather than the quantity and we feel that limiting the classes to eight people best accomplishes that goal.”

Basic training

If students have no HDD experiences the HDD Circuit Training program offers an excellent opportunity. “But if they have some experience, then we starting talking about having our dealers step in and helping more from a regional perspective,” Bokhoven said. “Dan [Vroom] and his team have created field modules that our dealers can use. We feel like in the short term that is helping us get in front of a few more people that are asking for training.”

Classes will not offer training for rock or difficult soil conditions, nor include recyclers or special tooling or other related variations frequently involved in more advanced boring.

“We’ve got great soils to learn in here in Pella, but there are many different types of soil conditions all over the country,” Bokhoven observed. “We really don’t have the time to devote to such diverse conditions. We’re teaching just the basics of good, comprehensive drilling. We may consider an advanced class in the future.”

But that’s where dealers can offer important, specific training. “The situational stuff – sand, cobble, things like that – we’re counting on our dealers to help them with situational differences,” Bokhoven said.

Due to liability limitations, Vermeer is accepting only students who are employed and covered under their company’s insurance. But the HDD equipment manufacturer is more than willing to match potential employees with contractor openings.

“We’ve had people reach out to us through social media,” Bokhoven recalled. “A downhole oilfield driller wanted to get trained as a directional driller, so we matched him up with a contractor who hired him and is going to send him to the school. We’re telling contractors that you find the people you want, hire them and then we’ve got a channel for their training.”

The program does require both a time and financial commitment from participating contractors. “It’s a tuition based class, $4,000 per person plus hotel and related expenses. We figure the hard costs, minus wages, would probably be around $5,500 to $6,000,” Bokhoven calculated.

“Interestingly enough, we’ve had contractors tell us that doing training the old way would have cost them twice that. When contractors have queried about the program, once I tell them all its encompasses, they don’t even flinch about the cost. If we can make their employees more efficient when they return to the job, contractors are money ahead,” he emphasized.


Like most detailed training courses, students are tested and evaluated.

“There are two tests that students are given when they complete the two weeks of training,” Bokhoven outlined. “First, we give them a pre-test when they get here. Then, we have them take a post-training test – the same test. The students have to score 80 percent to pass. We give them two chances to pass.

“If a student fails the first test, then one of the instructors would sit down with the student and go through the things that they failed, walk them back through to the right answer and make sure they understand that before having them re-test.”

“The second part of the testing is a hands-on piece where they have to plan a bore, then actually execute the bore. We also evaluate them on preselected criteria on a scale of 1-5. We give then a recommendation or a synopsis of their skill based upon our opinion of how they were as a driller and locator and other variables we check. We supply that report card to their contractor,” he said.

Upon successful completion of the class, students are presented with a certificate of completion and a laminated card to put in their wallet. “We give the card because its provides specific topics that students learned plus the training hours they spent on things like locating, drilling, etc.,” Bokhoven said.

Once students return home, follow-up continues to maximize the benefits of HDD Circuit Training. “We’re letting our dealers know right away who’s come to this class. They can follow up immediately to make sure things are going well,” Bokhoven said.
“Within the first 30 days after the class is finished, our trainers are making a phone call to talk to the students. Or we make sure they know how to reach out to us with questions or needs. We provide a lifeline.
“I’m reaching out to the contractor and I ask them lots of questions to see how they feel about the training we just finished with their employees. We’re committed to making sure the experience for them was worth way more than the expense,” he stressed.

As the program continues to be evaluated with each class, new opportunities also are embraced. “We’re going to do a class this year that will be all Spanish. We’ve got a couple of people on our staff that are fluent in Spanish and we’ve already translated all our materials. We recognize that we have to be versatile for the audiences that we train,” Bokhoven said.

How do you measure success?

In addition to the tests and evaluation, both Bokhoven and Vroom have goals they would like to see met that would define the HDD Circuit
Program as truly successful.

“We want these students to be more valuable when they leave than when they came,” Vroom said.

For Bokhoven, in addition to being more efficient, complete drillers, “we want our drills to last longer in the hands of customers, locators to last longer, tooling to last longer, etc. Part of what we teach them is how to get more value out of your products, and by knowing what can happen and avoiding it. It’s about making sure those assets are worth more at the end of the day,” he said.

“At the end of the first class there was a tremendous sense of accomplishment from the students. They were confident, they were ready to go. That gives me a sense of security in knowing that they get it.”

Vermeer Corp., 888-837-6337, www.vermeer.com
Digital Control Inc., 800-288-3610, www.digital-control.com
McLaughlin, 800-435-9340, www.mclaughlinunderground.com

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