Demand for workers trained to operate horizontal directional drill rigs for installing electrical and fiber optic cable prompted new class offerings this April at the NECA/IBEW 196 Safety and Ed Training Center in Genoa, Ill.
Serving 14 counties in northwest Illinois—with a membership that includes 400 apprentices and lineworkers, as well as about 300 members qualified for digging and drilling—IBEW 196 has already trained more than 50 groundhands to safely operate a Vermeer horizontal directional drill.
Not every terrain is suited for horizontal directional drilling. Some areas are too rocky or wet with high water tables. But northern Illinois offers plenty of soft loam and sandy soil with good drainage, which makes underground cable a suitable alternative to overhead transmission lines.
“It’s absolutely our fastest-growing area for our local,” said Derek Luetgert, IBEW 196’s business manager. “Local 196 has a full-time organizer, Greg Doss, whose main focus is organizing directional boring crews. We have 300–400 members every day, hand-digging or running directional drills or running the locator device in front of the drill.”
Prior to the class, all training occurred on the job, Luetgert said. “Contractors were adding crews at such a rapid pace, we saw a need for more people to be trained.”
Fulfilling a need
Demand for horizontal directional drilling is growing throughout the world. Likewise, the underground cable market was predicted to grow 4% from 2019 to 2024, according to CMFE Research, an information source for the energy and power industries.
“On the power side, for the past 15 years, we’ve had massive amounts of work related to [local utility] ComEd’s cable replacement program,” Luetgert said. “That jump-started our members getting more involved with this.”
The new norm is for cabling to support supervisory control and data acquisition, which enables control and communication between substations through the smart grid, saving utilities from having to send out crews to change settings.
“On the telecommunications side, the work is incredible with the amount of fiber going in. Some is for municipalities,” Luetgert said. “There are different fiber entities for running high-speed internet, and everybody wants underground versus overhead.”
Marty Kominoski, a trustee for IBEW 196’s safety and education committee, serves as a superintendent for Intren, a 2,000-employee company in Union, Ill., that clears the way for utilities to install cable and power lines and performs electrical work.
“We saw a great need for skilled, trained workers,” Kominoski said. “A lot of times, I’d call for labor and get a guy who has a CDL and is trained in first aid and CPR, but then I’d think, ‘Now we have to train them.’”
Kominoski believes IBEW 196’s new horizontal directional drill classes will address this challenge, for smaller contractors and large companies like Intren, which has 44 directional bore crews and 500–600 lineworkers on the job for ComEd at any given time.
So far, most of those who have completed the new training work for Intren, Kominoski said.
Growing the program
Classes of six students span two weeks and include 12 hours of classroom work and 32 hours of hands-on directional drill training. Students must pass written exams and show proficiency operating the equipment.
After a year of using the skills they learn, drill operators can request a letter from their work supervisor verifying their proficiencies and apply for a card confirming portability of their skills. Groundhands who successfully complete the class get a bump in pay, from $36.67 an hour to $46.06.
Per OSHA 1926 Subpart P—Excavations, much of the training relates to safety, including how to get on and off the trailer, how to chain down the equipment for transit and interpreting maps to learn where other underground gas and water utility lines are located. It also covers properly operating and maintaining rigs, which can be extremely expensive to repair and replace.
IBEW 9’s training center in Tinley Park, Ill., offered horizontal directional drill training before IBEW 196. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Local 196 partnered with Local 9 to set up its program and tailor training materials to meet their individual needs.
The challenge of purchasing directional drills also signals an uptick in activity.
“It took close to a year to get one,” Kominoski said. “They’re in high demand.”
Missouri Valley Line Constructors, Indianola, Iowa, will also be moving forward this fall to develop directional drill training classes, said Robert Foxen, the JATC’s executive director.
Greg Doss, an organizer for IBEW 196, demonstrates the operation of a horizontal directional drill. Header image by IBEW 196.