HDD Manufacturers Are Ready to Tackle the Workforce Shortage and Train New Drillers

Drilling 101

The utility construction industry has seen its fair share of obstacles over the past few years — from the recession to burdensome regulations to lack of funding. And now? It’s the shortage of qualified workers. Bids are being won and demand is steadily picking up, but workers are nowhere to be found. Although this is a problem among all types of contractors, the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) market has been significantly impacted. With plenty of work to be done, contractors are eager to hire. However, not any worker will do. Companies need skilled, qualified operators to tackle the work.

“HDD operators are in high demand throughout the utility construction market,” says Greg Wolfe, Ditch Witch director of training. “This high demand is leading to a shortage of operators with proper training and the right skill set, creating a gap that needs to be filled. As the underground construction market continues to grow, connecting with the next-generation workforce and retaining experienced operators through effective training is a priority.”

To combat the growing problem, HDD manufacturers such as Ditch Witch, Vermeer and Toro have been answering the call for help. This has involved developing training programs to entice and prepare operators for a future in the field. From programs for newbies and refreshers for veteran operators to classroom, onsite or computer training, there’s something for every student’s skillset and learning preference.

Vermeer Training
Vermeer has recently partnered with Des Moines Area Community College for its HDD Circuit training program — a two-week, 72-hour course held at the company’s global HQ.

What’s Out There?

While most HDD manufacturers have been offering training for decades, efforts have certainly evolved over the years. Now, there are even more options available to groom the perfect driller.

Vermeer, a leading HDD manufacturer, has been training customers for years with a mix of classroom and on-the-job programs for new and seasoned contractors. Most recently, the company has partnered with Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) for its HDD Circuit training program. The two-week, 72-hour course is conducted at the company’s global headquarters and is currently the only program of its kind offered through an accredited college.

“Municipalities are beginning to recognize the liability that’s involved with issuing work to contractors who are not using qualified or well-trained operators,” says Tony Bokhoven, training manager at Vermeer. “We’ve all seen the catastrophic consequences from drilling and striking a gas main in the news. They’re starting to ask about what kind of training do these operators have before they start the work. To help with this, we took our curriculum to DMACC and they evaluated the material from start to finish. Now, DMACC is endorsing our program and offering a certification upon completion.”

According to Vermeer, the HDD Circuit was not only designed to train operators, but create drillers. The program takes students through the whole drilling process — from walking the bore plan, locating utilities, identifying ground conditions, etc. — by combining classroom instruction, simulator use and onsite experience.

“We have an 11 ½-acre demo site that is set up like a real jobsite,” says Bokhoven. “There are utilities buried in the ground and obstacles to steer around. All of these things make it very realistic to the conditions an operator will encounter when they’re drilling on a real jobsite. However, the benefit is that it’s not a real jobsite in the sense that traffic isn’t whistling by and they don’t have a timeline to get the job done. I tell all of my classes, ‘This is your opportunity to get it wrong without any consequences and then figure out how to do it right.’”

Josh Beddow, marketing manager for The Toro Co., says that HDD manufacturers are always looking at ways to make their machines easier and more comfortable to operate, including less exposure to noise and vibration.

Ditch Witch has been providing factory-certified training since 1989 to operators of all skill levels in a variety of methods. The company’s program includes online and classroom-led courses, training on-site at the Ditch Witch factory in Perry, Okla., dealer-led training and new digital and virtual reality simulator training.

“In an effort to connect with the next generation of technology-savvy operators, last year we launched an online HDD training program which extends the Ditch Witch on-site, classroom-style training,” says Wolfe. “This program allows novice operators to train online at home, in a dealership or on a mobile device. Anyone interested in the program can register online and take the courses at their convenience, as many times as needed.

“In addition, we recently added a virtual reality component to our HDD training program. The new Ditch Witch virtual reality HDD simulator offers trainees a virtual drilling environment to best replicate a real HDD jobsite, from urban to rural settings — all while allowing the user to sit in a virtual drill cab and use real joystick control technology to operate.”

Toro offers training that’s tailored to its customers’ specific needs, complete with field training specialists to support its dealers. These specialists spend time with a contractor to ensure they’re comfortable and confident in operating and servicing the machine. Josh Beddow, Toro’s marketing manager, points out that the company’s training goes beyond newbies and is especially useful to veteran operators who may be switching to newer equipment.

“Operators tend to get so comfortable with their older piece of equipment — how it sounds and feels — that they may need training to get used to a new machine,” he says. “The new piece will sound and feel differently, as well as have new tools and settings to help them increase their productivity. We try to educate them on how to use those new technologies and features to benefit the operation of the equipment. For example, some Tier 4 machines come with regen cycles, so that’s another area where learning is involved. We explain what it is and why it’s important, so operators can be in tune with the machine.”

Promoting the Industry

According to all three manufacturers, the demand for HDD installations is strong and is projected to only continue growing. With that, it’s important to promote the industry to potential students early on and continue to highlight the bright future the market has ahead.

“Whether it’s been finding people to work in our manufacturing facilities or out in the field as a contractor, we’ve found that you have to engage these people earlier,” says Bokhoven. “For example, we used to engage juniors and seniors in high school and talk to them about welding, manufacturing and construction. However, we’ve found that if you haven’t engaged them by the time they’re freshmen, you’re probably too late.

“The future of the HDD industry is very strong. It’s changed from the respect that it used to be just a job that made a decent living. Now, with the right person who wants to travel and work outside, you can make a great career out of it and make a very strong living.”

Pam Kleineke is managing editor of Utility Contractor.

Three New HDD Models in the Market

Ditch WitchDitch Witch

Ditch Witch’s JT40 directional drill leverages direct input from HDD operators to meet specific jobsite needs. The drill is available with the option of a fully enclosed cab with premium heat and air capabilities, or an open operator’s station designed with integrated vandal covers. Both options feature a premium ergonomic seat, extended legroom and place the operator at a 45-degree angle — providing visibility of all critical vision points. The machine’s raw power, provided by a 160-gross-hp, Tier 4 Cummins diesel engine, gives operators 20 more horsepower in a smaller footprint over competitive 15-ft drill-pipe models in its class. The unit also minimizes pipe-entry distance, providing operators increased drill pipe support as it enters the ground. The optimized carriage speed gives contractors class-leading cycle times for faster utility installations. For more information, visit www.ditchwitch.com.


The new Toro DD2024 horizontal directional drill combines a compact design with 20,000 lbs of pullback force and 2,400 ft-lbs of rotary torque. Powered by a 74-hp Cummins B3.3 turbocharged diesel engine, the DD2024 delivers consistent and reliable performance in all operating conditions. Its quad rack and pinion carrier design spreads the load evenly for smooth and stable movement. The onboard mud pump flows up to 30 gpm, and the floating carriage has two speeds, including a 120 ft/min fast mode. The DD2024 is designed for powerful performance in tight working conditions. It has a footprint of 52-in. wide, 207-in. long and a height of 74 in. It has forward-mounted track drive motors with planetary gear reduction to provide superior traction in all types of ground conditions. For more information, visit www.toro.com.


The Vermeer D10x15 S3 Navigator horizontal directional drill is a reliable, economical solution for small service installation — built to help increase your crew’s productivity so you can go from one job to the next faster. Reduced noise levels at the operator’s ear makes a quieter working environment possible — creating less neighborhood disturbance and enabling easier communication among the crew. A smaller footprint — 4 in. narrower than its closest competitor — allows the drill to easily maneuver within narrow jobsites and position side by side with a mix system on a trailer. And with significant gains in horsepower and speed, the D10x15 S3 can help you put more product in the ground in a shorter amount of time. For more information, visit www.vermeer.com.

For more articles on horizontal directional drilling, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.