Training is at the core of any construction job. Even with the best plans and tools available, the ultimate success or failure of a project comes down to the know-how of the women and men doing the hands-on work.
Ditch Witch, a leading underground utility construction manufacturing company based in Perry, Oklahoma, recognized the need for proper training early on. In fact, Ditch Witch launched a training program for its dealers and customers in the 1970s. Today, the company offers training across its equipment line with a suite of online modules designed to help customers work safely and efficiently while maximizing the bottom line.
We sat down with Greg Wolfe, Ditch Witch’s Director of Customer Care, about the company’s training program and how it benefits clients, with particular regard to underground utility construction. Wolfe’s background with the company spans more than 34 years in a variety of roles, including serving in his current role for the past six years.
What is the state of training of underground utility installation crews? How are most crews trained? What are the available options?
Training of crews has become more and more important to us over the years because there are more and more utilities underground, and we see the level of training today as robust. As more and more utilities are going underground there are more potential obstacles, and training becomes an avoidance tool, teaching operators how to avoid those existing utilities.
When directional drills first came out in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was common to drill without having many disruptions of existing utilities or encounter cross bore interference. Today that is no longer true. Urban areas have expanded and there are a multitude of utilities in the ground – water, sewer, gas, telecommunications, cable communications. Correspondingly, the importance of training crews has increased over time, based on the amount of utilities in the ground and trying to keep people safe. Our training platform addresses vacuum excavation, walk-behind trenchers, stand-on skid steers and more. The keystone to the training program was our original HDD training, which we introduced online in 2015. There was a renaissance of new infrastructure being built in the 1990s with the original fiber “backbone” and then moving into the “Fiber to Home” and/or “Fiber to the Premise” stage and now rolling into an age of wider broadband and 5G technology to feed our continual need for additional bandwidth. This includes both urbanized areas and rural internet use.
What is the typical format of a training course?
If you go back 25 years, the process was that when a customer bought a new piece of equipment, the dealer was responsible for delivering anywhere from two days to two weeks of training, whatever was required to ensure that personnel was properly trained. What typically took place was dealership personnel would spend three days of training at delivery and then come back a week later for a few additional days, depending on the knowledge of the crew and the ability of the dealer themselves to train.
Over the course of the past several years, we’ve shared a vision with our dealer network. Many dealers across both North America and Europe have developed their own training facilities within their dealerships, and we have a standardized approach, so customers – whether they are in California or Florida – and are getting the same message.
First and foremost, our training is geared toward safety. From there, we expand out into operations. One of the key components of the online format is that it allows for students to learn at their own pace, and review portions as needed. Our online training is offered in English, Spanish and German.
The training platform has advanced to the point where some customers are using it as a prerequisite for hiring new HDD operators. Companies want new candidates to go through this type of training to determine whether they have an aptitude for the drilling business. HDD training it is different than training someone to operate a trencher or an excavator. The main reason being that when you’re drilling, you can’t see what is beneath the ground, so an operator needs to understand how guidance works, bend radius of the drill rod, as well as how to mix and utilize mud properly for the different soil conditions they might encounter.
In addition to the online training format, we now have a virtual reality simulator at all the main dealerships around the world. The simulators have the controls of a typical Ditch Witch drill. An operator simply puts on the goggles and they are virtually in the operator console of the Jet Trac. It teaches them how to think three-dimensionally and get used to navigating the drill head through the ground. They are set up with different types of ground conditions – anywhere from an open field to a road crossing to an urban area. If the operator overbends the pipe or encounters an obstacle, they simply hit reset rather than making those mistakes in the field.
Once an operator has been through the online and virtual training, we have them go through training on an actual machine in a controlled environment at a Ditch Witch dealership.
One of the issues that we face is that our customers sometimes have a difficult time carving out enough time for training. Their job is putting pipe in the ground, but investing in this time with the appropriate training can pay dividends.
What are the tangible benefits of contractor training?
We provide training at the point of purchase in the region of use. The reason we do that is when we first introduced drills back in the 1980s, we had people come to Perry, Oklahoma, where we had a week-long school where everyone could come and learn to use the drill. The problem was that they only became familiar with the local conditions. When they would go home to California or New Jersey or North Carolina, they would have no experience in their home conditions. Now we are providing a playbook for our dealers and they can tailor it to local ground conditions including mud mixing, which is critical to success.
Now we have customers that require our training for all new hires. I would say that using the training modules speeds up the process by two to three times compared to learning on the job.
What issues do you see when operators are not properly trained?
Probably the biggest is the wear and tear on the machine. You see drill pipe – which is your conduit to drill and pull back your product – oversteered, which can result in breaking drill pipe. That can be a costly mistake if you lose the tooling on the front.
Next is the success rate. When a contractor buys a drill and puts somebody new on it, it takes time to get someone trained where they can efficiently operate the machine. Too many times people take short cuts and the success rate goes down. More and more people understand this and allowing for adequate training, especially if they have experienced failures first hand.
Today, we have thousands of students enrolled in our online training modules.
What can a contractor do if they want training?
They can access the online training anytime. They can also reach out to their Ditch Witch dealers, all of which offer additional training days throughout the year. The schedule is flexible and helps operators understand the ground conditions in their local area.
One thing that is important for an owner is that even though they may have been in the industry a while, there are a lot of new faces that might lack experience. Our goal is to provide these contractors with a tool that can help them achieve a greater return on investment, lower the cost of ownership and achieve a greater bottom line. Ultimately, they are buying the equipment to make money.
What type of equipment requires the most training?
HDD is more difficult to learn because it is not quite intuitive. You need to think three-dimensionally because you are not opening up the ground. We’ve made some great strides over the past 10 years in daylighting utilities (vacuum excavation) as part of an HDD installation. This, along with our locators, allows you to physically verify the utility before you ever start. HDD and trenchless still requires a different mindset.
Do crews need to refresh their training? If so, how often?
We find that there is a percentage of people that need to come back and go through certain modules in their course structure. Typically, it revolves around mud mixing and locating. Oftentimes with mud mixing we find that experienced crews need new training if they are going to be working in a new area with different ground conditions than what they are used to.
Ideally, we like to see our students touch base with us every two years because we’re continually changing to improve the delivery and the training modules themselves. Again, sometimes that may be an issue trying to pull crews away from doing the work, but that is one of the reasons we offer it online and at no cost. As long as you have access to the internet, then you have the capability of getting training from Ditch Witch.