Environmental Works, Inc. sat down with Driller Aaron Stephens while he was on break from a drilling demonstration for geology students in Springfield, Missouri, in July 2020. A whole range of topics were covered, including how Aaron went from being a full-time firefighter to a driller, and what life on the road looks like at EWI. Read the interview in its entirety below.
Position – Driller
Office – St. Louis
Tenure at EWI – Four years
Hobbies – Lifting weights, racquetball
Marital status – Single
Degree and College – Bachelor of Business Management from Missouri State University
EWI: What do you like most about your job?
Aaron: I don’t think it would be one exact thing. Because if there’s only one thing you like about your job, that could go away and you might not like your job anymore.
I would say I like a number of things about my job. There’s a lot of flexibility – sometimes it’s really busy and sometimes it’s not. I don’t like a consistent 9-5 type job. It gets boring for me. Spontaneity and different variations of work keeps things interesting for me. Not to mention the different traveling you get to do. On top of that, you get to work with some good people who just want to do a good job and do the right thing. That’s a big part of it.
EWI: What do you like least about your job?
Aaron: I guess on the flip side of that, it is hard to have a consistent life schedule. Like, if I want to work out or hang out with friends on certain days, it’s all kind of subject to the job so it makes it hard to have a stable home life, but it works for me right now because it’s just me.
EWI: What is a typical day of work like for you? Is there a typical day?
Aaron: No, there’s not. Even this week, one day I was up at 5:30 getting ready for the exhibition we’re doing here, and then not getting home until 5 or 5:30, and then there’s other days where you get up at 5 or 6, you work all day, then you drive two or three hours to the next site or back to the shop and you don’t get home until 9 o’clock. And then there’s some days you just don’t have work and come in and do eight hours or take a day off. It kind of fluctuates from week to week.
It was really good for a while. I had a lot of work up in St. Louis, so I was all in the shop. I was still putting in long days, like driving an hour or two there and an hour back and doing my work at the site in between, but that was kind of nice because I was still pretty much home every night.
But the past three weeks I’m on right now is a lot of traveling. It’s all over the place – North Dakota and Fort Smith and Springfield and Wichita.
EWI: What does a typical week look like for you?
Aaron: The hours aren’t bad usually. Usually it’s between 45 and 50 hours a week. A lot of my time I don’t actually bill out. But I’ll do stuff on the weekends or at night. I’m usually doing 50 to 55 hours.
I like to keep my truck clean. They give us a truck as a perk for supervisors and I try to respect that and take it to the car wash every weekend and detail it out. I’ll spend some extra time with that, but I don’t bill it. Or, you know, taking some phone calls at night, or some guy calls you and has a quick question about an upcoming job and you have to field that. There’s a lot of that but it’s not horrible.
EWI: How do you feel about the manual labor you perform?
Aaron: I prefer winter over summer because I sweat a lot. That’s just who I am. I don’t like to be overheated and sweating.
I think it’s partly because I get hot and I can’t perform well when I’m getting overheated and hot. I feel like I’m not accomplishing anything. That’s why I like cooler weather or winter weather better because I can go nonstop and knock a job out real quick.
On the physical labor side, some days are harder than others. Like today, we’re doing an exhibition, so we’re only doing four soil borings. So we’ll do a couple and sit for an hour or two and wait for the next group to come in and then do it again. But there’s other days that you’re shoveling and going at it all day long. You get home and you’re done. You can’t move. But I’m the type also that likes the physical activity. My body doesn’t feel right if I’m not doing anything. I feel like I have to do something physical to feel like I accomplished something for the day.
EWI: How do you feel about getting dirty and gritty for the job?
Aaron: It’s all part of it, but I try not to because I don’t want to get all dirty and nasty and then get in my truck where I pretty much live. There are ways to stay cleaner if you can, like putting on extra PPE or changing clothes toward the end or putting on a different pair of shoes. But drilling is a muddy job. You get dirty and get mud all over you. It’s just a part of it.
The auger rigs are typically a little more dirty than the sonic rigs. The air rotary is just a dust cloud all day long.
EWI: Where did you work previously to EWI?
Aaron: In 2001, I went full time at a fire department and did that until 2015. Then, I went to the railroad for a couple of years, but the inconsistency with the railroad work was horrible. I was laid off quite a bit. Of the two years that I worked there, I only worked one full year that I was there. It was just too inconsistent. And it didn’t work with the home life at the time.
I looked into the environmental industry because it looked pretty interesting. I looked up EWI and saw how fast they were growing. With my fire department background and railroad background, it seemed like it might fit in with this.
I was just looking for a full-time job and looking for something that I knew could possibly pay more than just a 9-5 type job in Springfield.
EWI: What was your first position at EWI?
Aaron: I had my Class B license at the time with HAZMAT. I worked just a couple of weeks before we ended up on a big pipeline spill. I spent six weeks out there running the vac truck and doing air monitoring. I just kind of got thrown into it.
Then after that, they saw I was good with trucks so I was running Guzzlers and vac trucks quite a bit, running all over the place.
From there, Daniel (Yoakum, drilling department manager) needed a Guzzler operator, so I got some work there.
I was kind of getting a little burnt out on all the call outs and ERs and stuff. I got talking with Daniel and we decided to try it out. Drilling life is a little more stable than field services life, so I decided to stick with it.
We still run some emergency response with drilling, but it’s not like what the field services guys run day in and day out.
EWI: How do you feel about your coworkers?
Aaron: My coworkers are great. Just immediately speaking, us drillers are pretty tight. We always try to hang out when we can. Being on the road, we hang out a lot. And then, I have a good relationship with the field guys and the upper project managers. I’ve worked with them quite a bit. I’ve worked with a lot of I/R people, because of drilling. They’re really easy to work with.
Now being up in the St. Louis office, they’re a really tight knit group. They will pretty much do anything for you. When you come in, they help you unload. You do it for everybody. Every body works together real well. It’s very refreshing.
We’re involved in all parts of the company.
EWI: Why did you move to St. Louis from Springfield?
Aaron: I was born and raised up in North (St. Louis) County, Florissant to be exact. I came down to Springfield for school and ended up staying down here, got married. And then after my son got done with school and I got divorced, I basically had no reason to be around here and was really missing being around my family.
I have a lot of family up there.
I was kind of wanting to move back, and then the opportunity came up to open a drilling department in St. Louis and I jumped on it.
Daniel and I had talked about it pretty much from the beginning, once I started running my own crews. We were doing a lot of work up in St. Louis. And then he asked if I wanted to move back there. It got to the point where I just had to move on it.
EWI: Is there a steep learning curve to operating a rig?
Aaron: You know, I think there is.
For me, I came to it pretty easy. But I’m hands on, and once I do something once, I remember it. So it wasn’t hard to pick up.
It’s easy to show someone how to run a rig, but it takes time to become proficient at it because you’re working with all types of underground environments. You have to learn and understand and change on the fly while you’re doing it. Running it is easy, but then getting good and being able to work through problems is the hard part. I’m pretty good at working through problems, so I think it made it a good fit for me.
EWI: How do you feel about your opportunities for advancement?
Aaron: They’ve been pretty good so far. I came in with nothing, and now I’m running a department out of St. Louis.
Even when I was in the field, there were opportunities to go into a supervisor position. I haven’t seen a lack of opportunities. If people see a lack of opportunities, it’s because they’re not looking or trying.
EWI: How do you feel about what EWI offers as far as compensation and benefits?
Aaron: I’m happy compensation wise as far as salary. I think they’re very competitive in the Springfield market. The St. Louis guys seem to do pretty well as far as compensation. I think overall, I’ve seen good opportunities at making a living out of it.
Everybody struggles with healthcare and those compensations, but that’s just nationwide. I don’t think that’s an Environmental Works thing. They do good with their 401Ks and matching programs.
I talk to other companies that are in environmental when I’m out in the field. They say their match is like 1.5 percent or something like that. And EWI’s is three. Each time I talk to someone, it seems like EWI’s is better. Especially as far as similar salaries go.
It’s usually I/R departments at other companies. So I see how hard they’re working and how much they’re getting paid.
EWI: Are there any certifications that you needed to do drilling?
Aaron: To be a driller, you have to have a license in Missouri. It starts with an apprenticeship program, and you have to do a state test. You have to put in two years at so many sites to get your master license. I just completed that here within the last month. I’ve got my masters license, which means I can run other crews now. And we’re working on other bordering states now like Iowa and Arkansas. I don’t think Illinois requires a license for what we do.
EWI: What do you like to do outside of work?
Aaron: That’s a tough one because it’s hard to have a hobby when you’re gone quite a bit. I do like to exercise. I haven’t been doing a lot of that, but I do like to do something physical like lifting weights.
I was pretty good at racquetball for a long time, and when I came back to St. Louis I had a lot of friends that wanted me to play again. I just couldn’t make the time because it was too inconsistent with work. I never know when I’m getting off work.
I’ll probably start playing golf again because I played some in high school. I would like to join a roller hockey league or something.
EWI: Do you have kids?
Aaron: I have one. He’s turning 22 next month.
He just finished school and is moving out so I can sell my house.
EWI: How do you feel about your work/life balance?
Aaron: You know, that’s the main thing that I struggle with. I’d like to have more of a life outside of here. But that could just be me.
Daniel and I have talked about that. Eventually the St. Louis market is going to grow to the point where mine is going to be more of a managerial type position and fill-in position where I have a semi-office job. That’s our game plan – to grow the market and have multiple crews under me and to manage them.
Business development, writing proposals, project management, but still getting on sites.
EWI: What could be changed to improve EWI?
Aaron: I think the biggest thing is overall communication with the direction of the company and plans. When things are changing, what has changed and why is it changing?
I know it’s hard because we’re growing really fast, and we’re pushing hard and everyone’s working really hard, but I think that can go a long way. Because we see it all the time even in our department with forms changing.