July 2020 Vol. 75 No. 7


2020 HDD Roundtable: Workforce, Safety Continue to Top List of HDD Contractor Concerns

Whenever the underground construction industry gets together to talk business, horizontal directional drilling (HDD) is a major topic. And whenever HDD contractors gather, workforce issues often dominate the conversation.

That proved true again this year as a panel of industry leaders participated in the annual HDD Roundtable sponsored by Underground Construction magazine and the Underground Construction Technology International Conference & Exhibition (UCT).

Since the Roundtable took place, the Covid-19 economic shutdown has led to an historic surge in unemployment nationally, which may improve workforce availability. But the potential influx of workers who are new to the underground industry might also amplify training and safety challenges, while providing only limited help with retention.

This year’s roundtable was moderated by Grady Bell, principal at Bell Trenchless. Panelists included Dustin Brasher, a second-generation HDD specialist with ECI Drilling International; Greg Bosch, who has spent 11 years in business development at Quanta/Mears; and Paul Bearden, a trenchless crossing program leader at HDR.

Co-moderated by Underground Construction Editor-in-Chief Robert Carpenter, the event attracted a standing-room-only crowd that participated throughout the lively discussion of issues ranging from improved coordination with owners to the ongoing challenges associated with incomplete as-builts.


An interactive crowd contributed to the success of the 2020 HDD Roundtable.


Moderator: Workforce has been an inhibitor to growth for companies who find it difficult to attract good applicants, train them to the point of productivity and then retain them. Is this still a challenge for you?

Bosch: It is across Quanta. I think in total there’s over 35,000 employees. We have a constant issue and it’s across the board,
not only in our HDD division. We’ve gone so far as to build our own training module based on an American Augers rig. The employees who go through it range from seasoned guys to those who want to move up from a hand to a driller.

It gives them an opportunity to learn, but it doesn’t cost us an entire shift, which is quite expensive, so it’s a great tool for us. It’s mobile, so we can bring it to the job site. I know some of the other manufacturers also have their own training modules for some of the smaller rigs. But this is set up specifically for us. It took us about a year and a half to develop it, and it works quite well.

Brasher: Absolutely, training is an issue. You have a lot of rotation coming in and out with people all the time. As everybody here probably has a problem with, it’s really the generational issues with finding people who are willing to do the work, willing to travel and then, do it for the pay and stay on the road. It’s a continuing challenge.

Bearden: I have to echo exactly what these guys are saying. Seemingly more and more, it’s difficult to find those who are interested in even talking about working more than an eight-hour day and to be out on the road or gone for extended periods of time. There’s a lot to be done behind the desk or within a 40-hour work week. But to get the final product across the finish line, which is building pipelines out on the right-of-way, we have to find individuals who are willing to be out and away for a while. It’s definitely a challenge.


Moderator: Of course, training programs are only as good as the people coming into them. Where are you finding those new hires?

Brasher: I think part of the issue is that a lot of people are getting pushed to the idea that college is the way to go for everybody. A lot of people just have this idea that our industry it not good pay, it’s not a good life. So just going out to schools is very difficult nowadays. It’s just bridging that generational gap and pushing them into a direction that might be more beneficial to them.

Bearden: We’re targeting a lot of the universities because we’re looking for engineers, but we’re also appealing to what a lot of the younger people are intrigued by these days, and that’s the technology. We’re spinning in front of folks the idea that, hey, you can do a lot with software packages or any of these other tools that we have at our fingertips now to do the work more effectively and efficiently.

From a contractor perspective and looking at the equipment that we’ve got out there today, converting over from what we all once knew as more hydraulically driven levers to what we’ve got now, folks really start to get intrigued. And so ultimately, it’s evolving, and we’re utilizing that technology to our benefit to get folks interested.

Bosch: Looking to friends and families of current employees is always good because they understand what people have gone through with their work and travel. With what we do, we travel quite a bit, and the guys are gone anywhere from two months to three months at a crack. Some of them just don’t want to do the travel, so they’ll end up going to work for a smaller group that’s local. One of the issues we have is retention, just keeping them interested in what we do.

Obviously, the pay is better when they’re traveling. They make a lot of money. But again, we try to accommodate their family life. There are times when clients will want us to work through Christmas and New Year’s, but we typically won’t unless there’s a true reason to do it. People need to have that family time, and we value that very much for our employees.


Moderator: Any thoughts from other contractors in the room? Where are you finding good people?

Audience: We concentrate a lot on social media. Like you say, what the younger generation’s into, putting out that big job, that impressive job, that everybody wants to be a part of. We make sure it is advertised on social media to draw them in to apply. But it is a challenge. Legacy, with family and friends coming up in the industry, is always the best place to get people, but sometimes it’s hard to find that as well.

Audience: Another place we’ve had success finding good people is through the Helmets to Hardhats program. [www.helmetstohardhats.org] We also check with local recruiters and the VA. A lot of people who get out of the service don’t have a job available when they get home. The veterans we’ve had have been great. They bring a strong work ethic and experience taking on challenges and solving them, along with general service skills that are absolutely adaptable to this market.


Moderator: Even with the best of training, safety is a major concern, especially as so many of the experienced workers we’ve relied on to guide newcomers on job sites in the past have been lost to retirement. What have you been doing in the way of safety?

Bosch: Over the past year, we’ve been rolling out something that’s called “Stuff That Kills You.” We’re trying to get to the point where people understand if you see something, that’s really, truly going to kill someone, stop it. Everybody’s got to speak up. And we go through each shift in the morning, at midday and at the end of the day to make sure everyone understands what we’re doing. If the game plan changes, if we go from piloting to tripping back out to reaming, we make sure everybody understands why we’re doing it. Then we get back to work. There’s a lot of things on a job site that will kill you. You have to get the new guys understanding what those things are. We want to make sure everyone goes home.

Brasher: ECI is part of the JAG companies. We were just acquired a couple of years ago, and we built an entire culture around safety. Our leadership goes beyond standardized safety meetings. For instance, we have winter safety meetings when the entire company comes in, where we just build this to the point where everything revolves around safety prior to anything else.

Audience: Sometimes safety has to do with having enough room to actually create a safe situation. A lot of the sites are very condensed. Is there something you’ve been doing that has worked successfully to make sure you get enough room to create a safe site?

Bearden: From an engineering design perspective, it’s important to communicate during all phases of design, where you’re representing your owner-operators or whoever your client is to get them to understand why your contractor needs that workspace and that it’s worth the additional cost or effort. I can’t stress the need for communication too much because some folks just don’t get it. They look at the footprint of a piece of equipment and think you don’t need any more space than what it takes up. Often times, it’s just communication to help them understand that added space is required to ultimately prevent a situation created by not enough space, to keep things safe for everyone.

It’s also important for those of us who are out there supporting our owner-operator clients to communicate with our own workforce and help them understand when we’re on site to stay out of the way and let the people who are pushing and pulling the levers do their work. Teach them to keep our stuff out of their way so that we’re not impacting operations or getting into a scenario that could cause harm to anyone.


Moderator: From a contractor’s perspective, how big of a role do owner-operator clients play in your success, and what could they be doing to help you be more successful with their projects?

Bosch: We are all in the business of continually educating our clients, the owners, working with the engineers. I think that the sooner you can get involved in the process, usually the more successful the project’s going to be. I’ve seen us get drawings that are literally a KMZ file and they say: ‘This is your cross, give us a price on it, and you can get it by tomorrow?’ They give you no geotech.

We work with large gas companies – distribution, transmission – and I would say it’s across the board. Even within the same organization, you’ll have one group that will do all the proper things for the crossing, and you’ll have the other group that won’t. The biggest thing is understanding expectations. Can we work linearly? Yes, we can. Is it efficient? No, it’s not.

Brasher: The owners’ lack of understanding can be the source for many of these issues. But we’ve been seeing a lot of engineering companies that are not familiar with HDD act as if they know what they’re talking about when they put out a proposal to these owners. Then you go in to bid and try to qualify a few things. Sometimes you’ll get tossed out, you know, trying to explain to them what the true cost is and what the true schedule is.

And a lot of the times you’re finding out at the end that there’s a lot of problems that were not foreseen at the front, or where you tried to qualify. Then you’re fighting with the owners because they don’t understand why you’re chasing money and you’re chasing time on schedule.

Audience: We just went out and pursued the owners ourselves, to work directly with them at the beginning to make sure there’s a constructible job at the end. We don’t charge for this service. Sometimes we get the job, sometimes we don’t. But you go in there and do it just to make the industry better. All of us here are stewards of HDD. We need for HDD to be the preferred method, and any failure in HDD is a failure for all of us.


Moderator: One of the perennial issues that comes up is locates. Is this getting any better?

Brasher: This is still a big problem. I don’t think that I’m saying anything that anyone here is going to dispute, but as-builts are absolutely critical. Too often, it’s relying on those of us in this room to make sure we’ve got accurate information, once whatever it is is installed, for the next folks who come along, or even for ourselves. But there are so many instances when we are still finding very poor as-built information.

One more point I want to make regarding as-builts: If there’s any tool that’s left in the hole, don’t be shy and want to leave it off just because you don’t want to recognize that you lost it. Just put it on the drawings so that somebody knows there’s something there the next time they come through. •

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