A rollercoaster ride

Virginia Hilliard on the recent highs and lows of drilling in Australia
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Virginia Hilliard

The highest and lowest points in the US are both located in California: Mt Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at 4,421m (14,505ft) is only 136km (84.6mi) from the lowest point in the US, Badwater Basin in Death Valley at 86m (282ft) below sea level.

In the last five to six years, Australia's drilling industry has been following a similar pattern.

First the mineral exploration/production and then the oil and gas sectors within the Australian drilling industry went from the highest points ever to the other extreme in what seemed like a very short time, and stayed in the badlands for some years. Mineral exploration is just pulling up again. In most Australian states, the dip has been reinforced by state-based regulation, which strongly restricts exploration and development projects. 

This threw many experienced drillers, offsiders and drill supervisors out into the labour market.  While we're a cyclical industry and always have been, and while people have been accustomed to changing employers as contracts come and go, no one can sit at the kitchen table waiting for a call for years. Many went into jobs that used their skills and existing training - construction, heavy vehicle or long-distance truck driving, equipment maintenance, safety officer work in councils and so on. I spoke recently to an ex-drill supervisor, who is now drilling again, having been a truck driver, a driver trainer and a safety officer in between.

Knowledge transfer, skills shortage

During the same period geotechnical, environmental and construction-related drilling, however, has stayed pretty steady and even increased in activity. In some cases drillers and offsiders have moved across, though it's been harder for drilling supervisors. Some companies have actively tried to recruit drillers displaced from other sectors. It was refreshing to see that companies could see the opportunity, which seems like a pretty obvious gain - though some said things like "we only recruit new ones we can train to our way" or "how could those blokes ever possibly understand piling?"

Every cloud, however, has a silver lining. This movement between sectors brings a rich mix of skills to those individuals who can adapt and to those companies that employ them. A sort-out of companies in an industry can be a good thing, as people learn how to adapt and determine what really matters. We're a leaner industry after all.

Some drillers discovered that instead of remote work, they liked seeing their children play football on the weekends and their partners discovered that they could have a job too, and they've moved away from drilling. A few retired gratefully. These people are lost to the industry altogether. When we need to replace them, we'll have to start again. We can expect that drill supervisors will be hard to come by. You can't grow that expertise in a short time, and in the off-time many have had to make hard choices.

Some individuals or families bought rigs during the bad days when companies went to the wall and banks had gear auctioned. Some have become advisors and consultants to client principals. Now a new crop of small businesses is coming up, transferring and extending their knowledge and bravely stepping out into a new drilling future.

For the new, leaner mineral sector companies, it will be harder to get personnel back now things are ramping up again. New personnel will need to be trained, and those who return after being out for a while may need to reorientate. 

I hope that that as an industry we've learned from past experience and will support and invest in the employees we take on (whether moving over, returning or new), so that they start well, work well and stay with us.


Virginia Hilliard is the chief executive officer of the Australian Drilling Industry Training Committee (ADITC), which is based in Sydney, Australia. For more information visit: www.aditc.com.au

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