Foundation drill rig operator program begins in North America

By Deb Smith

It’s long overdue, but education and certification for foundation drill rig operators will finally be available through a comprehensive online course developed by experienced industry and teaching professionals.

Kevin Sharp, general manager of Northstar Sharp’s Foundation Specialists, has been involved in the drilling industry for 35 years and has seen great advancements in the size, power and technology of foundation drilling equipment. And yet until now, across all of North America, there has been no formal training for the hundreds of junior operators working on such powerful and dangerous equipment.

“My dad started in the drilling business in 1962,” said Sharp. “Back in the day, the only training you got was when the ‘old guy’ got off the seat and you got on. And many times, they didn’t want you in the seat in case you took their job. But today, we’ve come to the point where we don’t have a surplus of tradespeople who can run drill rigs.”

Sharp also talks of injuries and deaths on job sites, all too often because of insufficient experience, if any, in the operation of foundation drilling equipment.

“We asked Kevin to have a few people in the industry come and talk about it in more detail. He not only brought industry members together, but he involved people from all over North America. It was amazing how passionate everyone was about seeing this program happen.”
– Tina Wood, NAIT

“Any training mostly comes from the rig manufacturers; they’ll do a week-long session, but just on that rig, nothing else,” said Sharp.

Developing the program

Determined to bring credibility and safety to the industry, Sharp called the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton to see if they would be interested in developing a drill rig operator program. After this first phone conversation, Tina Wood, account manager for corporate and international training at NAIT, knew such a program would reflect the school’s leadership in technical training and applied education while also fulfilling a real need in the industry.

“I spoke with my supervisor about this exciting opportunity,” said Wood, “Next, we asked Kevin to have a few people in the industry come and talk about it in more detail. He not only brought industry members together, but he involved people from all over North America. It was amazing how passionate everyone was about seeing this program happen.”

In 2015, an advisory committee made up of industry members and several NAIT teaching specialists began the task of mapping out a curriculum. By September 2017, the first formal certification program for foundation drill rig operators was announced, consisting of nine online theory courses organized into two levels along with extensive work-integrated learning.

The nuts and bolts of certification

To enter the program, applicants must have 250 hours of experience working in the foundation drill rig industry in drill rig operation or related work.

“Companies want to make sure that these ladies and gentlemen are truly interested and qualified, able to learn how to operate such equipment and that they have an understanding of the work involved before committing to the program,” said Wood.

In addition, they must be sponsored by their employer and have an assigned mentor who is a supervisor approved by the company and who is willing to sign off in the competency passbook.

Level I courses:

  • Principles of Drill Rig Operations
  • Safety in Drill Rig Operations
  • Introduction to Drilling Equipment
  • Mechanics and Maintenance I
  • Calculations and Rigging
  • Completion of Level I requires 500 hours of “seat time,” as monitored by the mentor

Level II courses:

  • Installation of Drill Shafts
  • Project Documentation and Communication
  • Blueprint Reading
  • Mechanics and Maintenance II
  • Plus another 1,000 seat time hours, for a total of 1,500 hours of real time experience

Most of the course work is self-graded, but NAIT will have available an online tutor with skill in the industry. Wood commented that they will provide the work mentor with access to the course material so they can get information and be better able to help.

“Our team worked hard at putting this together, with the commitment to seeing it through to the end,” said Sharp. “There is a lot in this program that operators won’t get from a manufacturer’s training session or manual. We took similarities of the industry and built a program around that, not on specific machines.”

Registration is opening late fall 2017 with the program scheduled to begin January 2018. Tuition fee for Level I is $2,625 and $1,795 for Level II, which will be ready to go in September 2018.

“It’s been very exciting to be part of the whole process, and it’s not stopping; we’re continuing to look at other things we might need to build on the content,” said Sharp. “My goal, as far as maybe leaving a legacy, would be to make the industry a little bit better than when I came in.”

Looking towards the future, clients are going to come to expect such training before they hire any contractor. With individuals and organizations in the industry promoting safety and training from within, there is little doubt that it will eventually, and very soon, become the norm. 

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.