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HDD Training Teaches More Than Just Basic Skills

by: Christine Smith, Product Marketing Specialist – Utility and Productivity Tools, Vermeer
When it comes to horizontal directional drilling (HDD), simple training is not enough – it needs to be the right training. Because HDD is an art and a science, the right training, education, and experience is a critical combination in knowing the right balance between the two.

As HDD expands and more crews are needed, training becomes complicated. HDD equipment manufacturers are trying to do their part by offering dedicated training programs. According to Vermeer Industrial Equipment and Crew Skills Training Manager Dan Vroom, who manages the Vermeer HDD Circuit Training Program, the program courses Vermeer offers are designed for operators with or without previous experience. Over the years, Vermeer has continued to improve its in-house training program to help advance the industry.

Since launching its HDD training program, hundreds of contractors have successfully completed the Vermeer course. Vroom noted that while every contracting company has its own reasons for sending staff through the course, the overall feedback from those who have successfully completed it is nearly identical – that the knowledge and hands-on skills gained through the coursework have helped companies expand their operations and helped their crews work more efficiently.

Making an Investment in Training From an Owner’s Perspective
Ray Sakolari, Owner of Rays Electrical in Elgin, Illinois, said that when his company added HDD to its service offerings in 2013, they relied heavily on a couple of experienced operators, as well as the support of their dealer, Vermeer Midwest. For the long-term success and growth of the business, though, Sakolari decided he needed to develop an apprenticeship program and train his own operators. “However, I knew we didn’t know everything we needed to properly train a new crew member,” he said. 

Sakolari went through the Vermeer HDD Circuit program and then used what he learned to create a set of standard operating procedures (SOP) for his crew, as well as to train new employees. Sakolari said he gained a lot of knowledge in a short period of time. Specifically, the time spent discussing how to plan a bore, the tools they need to be successful and the in-depth review of Vermeer instruction manuals will go a long way in helping him establish a process to train his team. 

Another benefit of the course for Sakolari was the time spent learning about mixing drilling fluids. “I guess you could say we did a lot of ‘guesstimating’ before,” he said. “Now, I understand all of the different materials available and how to properly mix them to match the needs on a particular project.”

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Since attending the HDD training course, Sakolari has sent several additional members of his team through the course, and his business has continued to grow.

Getting Into HDD
Entrepreneurs Jeremy and Jonathon Fields of Fields Construction & Excavating Inc. in Canandaigua, New York, had a similar experience with Vermeer and its program. This father-son team provides full-service site development for the Western New York State region. The company’s specialty is lake-frontage development, which involves a wide range of construction services. Jonathan Fields said, when the company first started, they used several subcontractors on large projects. A few years later, the family decided it was time to add HDD to its list of services.

Of course, just having the equipment doesn’t make a contractor an expert, which is why Fields enrolled in the Vermeer HDD Circuit program. He said it was important to him to learn HDD techniques from experts. “There’s a lot of competition among contractors, and I wanted to make sure we provide our customers with the best service, and that we do our jobs right. I think being able to show potential customers that we are certified is another way we can differentiate ourselves.” 

In addition to learning the proper techniques for operating an HDD, Fields learned about mixing drilling fluids and locating. “Around the lake, we perform some pretty challenging bores through rocky soil conditions, and making sure we have the right drilling fluid mixture will certainly help us be more successful,” said Fields. “I learned a lot about planning a bore on the front end and how that will help a project go more smoothly.”

Improving Existing Skills

Vroom said, “Knowing what the right training is starts with an honest assessment of existing industry knowledge and experience. Someone might have years of experience in the industry, but it may not be years of good experience. A big part of the process is asking a lot of questions and focusing on the fundamentals.”

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Proper training should be every HDD company’s top priority and not just the operational basics, Vroom explained. This was true for Jason Gable, who got his first chance to run an HDD at the age of 18 for an uncle who owned a small drilling company. Years later, after accepting a position with the Jackson Energy Authority, his new employer purchased a new HDD of their own and asked Gable to run it.

“The company also budgeted for training,” said Gable. “I was pretty excited about that – it had been years since I was on a drill and there can sometimes be little room for ‘on-the-job training’ mistakes when you’re operating a drill.” 

According to Vroom, Gable’s experience is the goal of the program, “Many operators know the ‘how’ of operating the machines but lack a full understanding of the ‘why,’” Vroom said. “This type of cause-and-effect training has long-term benefits for both equipment operators and the contractors on whose jobsites they’re working.”

During the course, Vroom said students spend 72 percent of their time in the field drilling, locating and performing everyday duties of an HDD crew. The other 28 percent is split between classroom learning about different fluid mixing additives, calculations, safety and tooling; and hands-on learning about drilling equipment calibration, vacuum excavators and machine demonstrations.

Vroom added that breaking bad habits and preventing the use of short cuts is a big part of these courses, too. “Once we can target a specific action that’s being done incorrectly, we talk about how it’s going to affect them in the short term, as well as maybe a year down the road,” Vroom said. “We also place a big emphasis on cross-training. It’s important for productivity to have crew members who can quickly jump into another role when needed.”

Applying Knowledge
The Vermeer HDD Circuit program, which started in 2016, is designed to support HDD companies, large and small, with developing their crewmembers’ operating skills in a swift and professional manner. Vermeer instructors can train on HDD skills involving drill operation, locating, bore planning, mud mixing, vacuum excavation, daily machine maintenance and safety, depending on the selected course.
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“After going through our circuit training, attendees have the experience and the confidence to go out and start applying what they learned to the jobsite,” Vroom said. “Because we use hands-on opportunities, these ideas are more than just concepts – they become engrained in operators’ minds. This is critical because when they get to the jobsite, they have the fundamentals down and don’t try to take shortcuts that may not pan out later.

As an example, after attending the HDD Circuit program, Caleb Thompson went on to start his own company, Mauler Contracting in Miles City, Montana. Prior to getting into HDD work, Thompson had spent more than seven years working in the oil industry. When a friend approached him about running an HDD of his, Thompson knew it was a good fit. Since he already had so much experience working on drilling rigs and mixing mud, he picked up on HDD very quickly.

Thompson said that while working in the oil fields, almost every machine operator was required to be certified, which is why obtaining an HDD certification was important to him. Looking for additional seat time behind the controls and a better understanding of locating best practices, Thompson said he got so much more from the Vermeer program. “The instructors were very accommodating to what we wanted to get from our experience,” he explained. “They taught us on-the-job best practices that I used to develop my company’s SOP.”

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