June 2018 Vol. 73 No. 6


2018 HDD Roundtable Workforce Issues Top Contractors’ Agenda

By Jeff Awalt, Executive Editor

A panel of industry leaders participating in an horizontal directional drilling (HDD) roundtable shared a positive outlook for the directional drilling contractors but focused much of their attention on workforce issues that could become even more challenging when business is growing.

Clockwise top left: Ron Halderman, Rob Tumbleson, Robert Meadows , Bill Colson

Attracting and retaining so-called “Millennial-generation” workers ranked high among the concerns of panelists – and for good reason. Millennials now make up the largest share of the U.S. workforce, and contractors are adjusting to the unique traits and needs of a generation that, which to some degree, has defined itself as less hard-working and willing to sacrifice than any which came before it. The panel also addressed related issues and shared their approaches to instilling safety with rotating crews, selecting and working with suppliers, and prioritizing jobs in periods of growth.

The annual roundtable, sponsored by Underground Construction magazine and the Underground Construction Technology International Conference & Exhibition (UCT), was moderated by Ron Halderman, director of special projects for Mears Group. A leading figure in the HDD industry for almost 40 years, Halderman helped innovate many of the procedures now used by contractors and consultants around the world.

Panelists included: Bill Colson, a 20-year veteran of the pipeline industry who currently serves as HDD general manager at Pretec Directional Drilling; Robert Meadows, founder and president of Global Underground Corp., a Colorado Springs-based contractor utilizing open-cut excavation, HDD, pipe bursting and hydro excavation methods; and Rob Tumbleson, director of business development for Ellingson Trenchless LLC, which is based in West Concord, Minn., and operates throughout the United States. Underground Construction’s Editor-in-Chief Robert Carpenter served as co-moderator.

Q – What are some of the biggest challenges you face from a workforce perspective?

Meadows – It’s a constant challenge getting people who want to work hard, so we’re always trying to come up with different methods that might attract Millennials and help get them excited about the business. We’ve found a lot of younger people are more attracted to high-tech rigs that are 100,000-pounds and down. If you try to get Millennials to come in and get on a maxi rig, you’ll find that’s a different workforce. Also, you need to understand what’s important to them, because sometimes the priorities of Millennials are a little bit different. It’s not just about money. It’s really important for them to feel like they’re part of a team, so you have to create an environment where they understand that they belong and see how they’re part of the team.

Colson – The biggest problem we have is not having adequate personnel that we can get on the site. And then so many of them, all they want is a paycheck. They didn’t realize how hard the work would be and they don’t take pride in what they do. On the other hand, we also struggle with a smaller group who are ambitious, but they want to advance too quickly. They don’t want to put in the time and learn the trade from the ground up, so when they finally get up to the mud tank, they don’t want to throw bags all day and end up finding something else that’s easier.

Tumbleson – One of the big hurdles we face is trying to get some of the younger people to get their heads around the travel and time away from home that’s required for the job. They’re attracted to the money, so that’s a great carrot to get them started, but once a guy has been away from home for two or three months and starts getting some family pressure, then that starts to take over and the money doesn’t matter so much anymore.

Q – Are you finding any practical solutions to Millennial issues, such as their aversion to long periods away from home and their desire for a team environment?

Meadows –It starts from the top. Your guys have got to know that they are an important part of what you do, no matter what position they’re in. You’ve got to make sure everybody on your management team understands that so it trickles down and your guys feel respected and valued. It’s just daily maintenance and shows up in the little things, like how you treat people with respect. If somebody has a hiccup, you don’t just fire them and say, “Well, you’re replaceable,” because other guys hear that and think they’re replaceable too. We try to stay connected throughout the year with site visits, holiday events and other company gatherings. We also make a point of bringing people into the office for continuing education, so they’re not just out on a rig and feel more involved in the company.

Tumbleson – We’re making more effort to ensure our guys get home. We had a project earlier this year where our crews couldn’t go home for four months, but we were able to put together a rotating crew and guarantee they all got a trip home every six weeks. That’s something we have to do if we’re going to keep those qualified, skilled guys. We’re also making a conscious effort to have regular site visits and keep them up with what’s going on in the office. If I’m calling on one of my customers near one of our projects, I’ll spend a day on the jobsite. I’m responsible for the business development, so instead of acting like I know everything, I’ll ask those guys, “What are you hearing? Who should I go see?” They’re not just slinging bags all day, but they’re part of the team effort.

Q – What are some positive qualities that Millennials can bring to the workplace?

Tumbleson – As the technology of drilling rigs gets more complex, they understand them a lot faster than some of us. It’s like playing a big video game for them. The problem is, they don’t have the experience to get to that seat and might lack the work ethic or drive to get there.

Colson – A team-oriented mindset is another positive, because that’s a big part of our business. That’s your family out there on that crew. They cook out almost every day, eat together, work together and a lot of times stay in the same hotels. It really does become a very tight-knit group.

Q – How do you maintain safety when you’re rotating crews and filling in with inexperienced labor?

Colson –I’ve heard people blame this for safety problems, but I believe that falls on us as leaders. We all had a Day 1 out there. Everybody should take the initiative to learn, but we also have to take the initiative as leaders to help those people learn. We’ve had people on our crews who didn’t want to teach somebody because they’re afraid of losing their job to someone who’s ambitious, then somebody got hurt. Yes, the local halls will send out people who aren’t qualified, but how do you become qualified? By being out there. It’s the same for Millennial hires we’ve been talking about. It’s our job to come alongside those individuals to keep them out of harm’s way and help them learn our trade.

Tumbleson – This process starts with our safety group and works its way right down to the field superintendent. It’s their responsibility to train and keep people safe and not jeopardize the health and safety of others and the reputation of the company. If they can’t train them to be safe, we just can’t have them out there.

Q – As more job opportunities arise, how do you decide which ones to prioritize when there are more than you can handle?

Tumbleson – That’s a moving target. It has a lot to do with your schedule and which rigs are available, but as a subcontractor, there’s always the owner and the GC (general contractor) to consider. We have some we prefer to work with versus other ones.

Meadows – I think that choosing your clients is also about looking at the engineering team. We’ve had some situations in the past where the entire project was a struggle and had to be re-engineered. So if you have a choice between RFPs, we’ll go for the one that’s got a better engineering package and more information and isn’t just looking for the cheapest contractor.

Q – Improved demand can create opportunities for contracting companies to start up and grow. What advice do you have for younger HDD contractors?

Colson – Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you have a problem or run into something new, it can be hard to swallow your pride and call someone who’s faced the same situation. For a lot of small contractors, the manufacturers and service providers are great sources of advice. And remember when you’re choosing equipment and suppliers that one of the most important factors to consider is service after the sale.

Meadows – Shop around to make sure you understand your options and educate yourself. I agree that service is absolutely key. You don’t mind paying a little more if that service is coming with it, but you want to be sure you get that service when you need it.

Q – Looking ahead, what excites you the most about our industry?

Colson – One of the things that’s exciting in the industry is the amount of work that we see on the horizon – that you’re not going to have one contractor getting the whole pie, but all of the contractors are going to get a little piece of the pie. There are definite signs that there will be enough work over the next few years for everybody to be busy.

Meadows – I think we’re seeing more projects with better engineering – pressure calculations, potential locations, the whole workup of engineered calculations. It’s pretty exciting for me to see that, because it’s not just an opportunity for business, but to know exactly what’s needed and deliver results we can be proud of.

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