Oil well drillers, commonly called rotary drill operators, set up, operate and maintain the equipment needed to drill oil wells. They train crews, maintain records of drilling operations and control the levers and throttles of the drill while it is in use. There are no minimum educational requirements for drillers; most start in other occupations and work their way up to driller. The typical progression is from roustabout to derrick operator to service operator and then finally to driller.
What You Need
Normally, the only perquisite for a driller operator is previous experience and on-the-job training. Most begin as roustabouts. Roustabouts are the general laborers or helpers on rigs. They remove debris from the work area, clean equipment, dismantle machinery when needed, and may perform routine maintenance or repairs. Roustabouts may advance to derrick operators. The derrick is the metal frame that stands above the actual well. Derrick operators inspect these structures, or supervise their inspection, prior to the service unit operator raising or lowering them. They are responsible for the drilling fluid system, including the pumps, and may repair or maintain the system. Derrick operators may perform routine maintenance and repairs on other equipment on the oil rig, train roustabouts or supervise a crew. Service unit operators handle the controls that lower or raise derricks, as well as the controls for the levelers. They are responsible for maintaining the wells after they are drilled, such as removing rods and tubes, and often drive their equipment to the site. Service unit operators install devices on the wellhead to measure and control pressure, install cables on the derrick pulleys and operate pumps to flush sand or other obstructions from the flow of oil.
Becoming a Driller
Although most drillers learn the trade through on-the-job training and experience as a roustabout, service unit operator or derrick operator, limited formal training is available. Vo-tech courses, such as basic welding and mechanics, can be helpful, as can instruction in operating heavy equipment. Some employers prefer candidates with at least a high school diploma, but approximately 31 percent of drillers are not high school graduates, according to O*Net Online. The prospecting driller apprenticeship is recognized in association with the rotary drill operator occupation. Interested parties should contact their state labor board or visit the U.S. Department of Labor's website.
Applicants typically must be older than 18, able to pass a drug screening and physically fit. They need to have good coordination and dexterity. Drillers must be detail-oriented and safety conscious. Normal vision, including depth perception, and hearing are necessary for the job.
Job Outlook and Earnings
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 7 percent growth rate for drillers between 2010 and 2020, compared to 8 percent for all oil and gas workers. The actual growth rate will depend on consumer demand and whether new fields are found or opened to drilling. In 2012, drillers averaged $56,540 per year, according to the BLS, with 10 percent earning more than $84,390.