Featured In: Underground Construction
Since the inception of horizontal directional drilling (HDD), a dearth of training programs has resulted in on-the-job, on-the-fly training by contractors. While such training is not necessarily a bad thing, during the first golden age of telecom construction it did mean much inconsistency in the HDD process. Today in the second golden age of telecom, workforce issues have emerged as a major inhibitor to growth.
As the 1990s telecom boom accelerated, the absolute need to place fiber trunk lines in the ground often trumped quality work. Accidents and system installations with problems or even failures were not uncommon. Years later, a well-documented legacy of crossbores still generates major infrastructure issues for underground utilities.
Manufacturers tended to stay away from training. Fear of liability was certainly a key component of that decision but also the state of the industry was such that rather than invest in something that wasn’t really one of their core areas, vendors preferred to leave training up to the contractor. Also, training was often part of the sales or value-added process that a dealer would offer customers.
That was also back in the day when hard iron was making quantum leaps forward every six months. Everyone was learning on the job and manufacturers, big and small with equipment serving markets and contractors of all sizes, were focused on investing in research and development to bring the latest and greatest advancements to market as quickly and efficiently as possible. Training was someone else’s problem.
In all fairness, leaving the training up to contractors or working with dealers for training support seemed to be the preference of most contractors. They would train people their way, at the company’s pace and schedule, and for specific roles as needed. Typically, contractors had to snag new hires from wherever they could, throw them into the field, and train on the go. Even then, labor was tight. Employees were poached on a regular basis. But it was the experienced operators that were in such high demand and frequently switching jobs.
Further, everybody – inside and outside the industry – wanted a piece of the pie. Basically, if you had a used pick-up truck and $5,000, even an inexperienced contractor could find financing to obtain a rig and necessary equipment for telecom work. No training, no experience, just enthusiasm; it was a clear recipe for disaster.
Of course, the unsustainable drive to light up fiber trunk lines around the country started to tumble by 2000 and in 2001 came to an unceremonious crash. Even the experienced HDD operators found themselves looking for new jobs at reduced wages as contractors were forced to tighten their belts just to survive – and by some assessments, as many of 50 percent didn’t.
But the HDD industry and underground utility construction in general did rebound. The nation’s dark fiber surplus has long since been exhausted as consumer needs – and appetites – for bandwidth has made fiber the new, necessary reality. More ‘can’t do without’ tools and toys are introduced on a regular basis, steadily increasing demand. The mad rush to provide fiber to the premises has emerged as a more sustainable model. That pressure, combined with healthy gas distribution and electric markets, has again brought workforce issues to the forefront of the industry.
This time around, manufacturers are more in-tune with customer needs. Thus, training programs are emerging, predictably more so from the larger manufacturers with resources and a plethora of dealers to help, but ultimately all facets of the market are getting involved. The Distribution Contractors Association has launched a workforce initiation and is hoping to get other groups and associations involved in their initiative focused on underground utility installation and maintenance.
In this issue, two different but important approaches to worker training are presented. Ditch Witch has launched a complimentary online HDD training program that works in tandem with their dealers for field support.
Vermeer has developed an extensive – and intensive – two week HDD training program. These are substantially different approaches but nonetheless share a wholehearted and sincere commitment from Vermeer and Ditch Witch management.
While most vendors are unable to mount such cost-prohibitive programs for training, they all have opportunities and avenues they can pursue to meet the training needs of the industry’s workforce. While finding trainable labor remains a major stumbling block in the big workforce picture, the emerging training programs represent a significant, potential game-changing start to tackling workforce issues.
Dan Vroom, Vermeer customer training lead and one of the developers of Vermeer’s HDD Circuit Training Program, believes that “drilling is an art that you get or you don’t. I got into it and just loved it,” he said.
Enthusiasm is contagious and sometimes that’s what it takes to make progress. It’s a step, an important and big step, down the road to a long-term solution.