Perspectives: Jacob Bruster, Unit Drilling – Teaching rig crews can be as rewarding as teaching kids, but you have to know how to build trust
By Linda Hsieh, editor & Publisher
Roughnecking is not for everyone. Even on today’s automated rigs, much less old-style Kelly rigs, it’s not uncommon for new-hires to quit weeks or even days after starting out. However, for those who stick it out, the job can prove rewarding. For Jacob Bruster, his experience roughnecking during college helped to instill a strong sense of mental toughness – something that has proven valuable in the years since, in both his personal and professional pursuits.
He recalls one particular tour when he was working as a derrickhand while the rig was tripping out of a well – in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm. “I was up on the board, and it was a 12-hour trip,” he said. “I was up there for 12 hours, and it was really testing my mental and physical capacity. I got to the point where I thought, ‘I’ll run 10 more stands and then I’ll have someone switch me out.’ But after those 10, I would say, ‘Alright, I’ll do five more,’ then five more after that. Eventually, I finished.”
The experience ended up being something he would call back in his mind time and again, as a way to push himself to higher performance whenever he came under stress and pressure. “It doesn’t matter what it is I’m doing. If I feel like I’m getting tired, I think about how I tripped pipe for 12 hours in the middle of a thunderstorm, and whatever I’m doing is nothing compared to that.”
After college, Mr Bruster left his roughnecking days behind and became a teacher – something he had aspired to become ever since he was in middle school. He had helped to tutor someone with math, and seeing them have an “a-ha!” moment made him realize that this was what he wanted to do. “I didn’t have my sights set on anything else. I just knew I wanted to be a teacher,” he said.
While he loved the two years he spent teaching at an inner-city school in Oklahoma City, Mr Bruster said he found himself back in the oilfield a few years later, after he got married and started having a family. An opportunity presented itself when his father – who worked for Unit Drilling for 30-plus years before retiring earlier this year – told him that the company was designing its new super-spec BOSS rigs. It was looking for someone who had both teaching and rig experience to develop and deliver a broad range of in-house training courses, from top drive and other equipment training to leadership and team development training.
Mr Bruster fit the bill perfectly and joined the company in 2011. Unit even supported him in going back to school and getting a Master of Education in Adult Education and Industrial Safety.
While Mr Bruster found himself still doing a lot of teaching in his new role at Unit, he quickly realized that teaching adults – especially rig crews – was very different from teaching kids.
“With adults, you have to prove to them that you’re worthy of being there and giving information to them,” he said. Whereas teachers get ample time over the course of a school year to get to know and build relationships with their students, in professional training, “you’ve got about 15 minutes in the class to show them you know what you’re talking about. There’s a finite period of time to get these guys to trust you and listen to you.”
While this required some adjustments in the way he taught, Mr Bruster found that helping adults to have “a-ha!” moments in class was equally as rewarding as working with kids. Especially during well control training, he said, in almost every class he would see at least one person achieve that moment of understanding. “I loved getting to experience that with them,” he said.
Early last year, Mr Bruster transitioned to a new marketing role within Unit, although he still delivers some in-house training. In late 2021 he took on an additional role as Chairman of the IADC Permian Chapter. Over the past several months, his focus has been to increase awareness of the chapter and to get more people actively involved. The chapter has sponsored several local events in Midland, Texas, as well as raised approximately $25,000 for student scholarships through a golf tournament.
Helping others to learn about oil and gas
Mr Bruster is also working to help the drilling industry in other ways, including through his volunteer work with the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board. Among other things, the group helps teachers in Oklahoma to learn about the oil and gas industry. Since 2019, Mr Bruster has helped to facilitate several tours of Unit rigs for these teachers, the most recent one taking place in July, with nearly 100 teachers participating.
Feedback from these tours have been amazing, he said, with some teachers saying that it completely flipped their views of the oil and gas industry. “Just in one teacher tour, we gained industry supporters because they got to meet our people and see how we protect our people and the environment. I think that’s really the biggest thing we can do.” DC