Exclusive interview with Ili Cava

April 14, 2020

Ili Cava was born on the small island nation of Fiji, before moving to the world’s largest island of Australia in 1984. A graduate of Queensland’s Townsville Grammar School, Ili worked as a driller for close to a decade, traveling across Australia, and to Europe and South East Asia – relishing every opportunity to learn and be mentored, rising through the ranks of the corporate drilling world. His experiences shaped his desire to focus on drilling health and safety and more specifically, training development. It was at this moment that the ‘job’ became a passion, motivating Ili to uphold various senior roles. Since 2005, Ili has been the Managing Director of Australasian Drilling Institute (ADI) – an established and registered training organization (RTO), responsible for developing training programs for both new entrants and experienced drilling personnel. Ili enjoys helping others realize their dreams, especially young students. Ili is also Managing Director of Global Drilling Alliance, promoting collaboration between mining, exploration and training providers to strategically address drilling industry training and development needs. Ili has also upheld the role of MD of the American Drilling Institute since 2017.

Grigor Topev: Everyone’s got a story as to how they started in drilling. What’s yours?

Ili Cava: Like so many Fijian kids, I thought rugby was my future, but I became distracted. My observant mum and geologist stepfather decided to keep me occupied until I decided otherwise, organizing an offsiding role with family friends who operated their own small drilling company. I finished my schooling in November, enjoyed a short break and then answered a knock at our front door in early December. A German man stood before me, advising that he had come to collect me. I turned around, and there stood my mum – bags packed on my behalf. ‘Good luck son. I’ll see you when you get back!’ Just one month after finishing high school, I was working on a rig! It was tough, yet I was determined to make a go of it and didn’t want to disappoint my family. Drilling was and still is the perfect industry for me as I love to travel, and this industry ensures that you never stay in one place for too long.

GT: How and when did you develop an interest in education and training?

IC: In 1997, I returned from Europe having worked for 18 months. I was motivated to obtain a role with one of the larger corporate drilling companies, as I’d so far been employed by industry owner-operators. I started with Rockdrill, which was later acquired by Century Drilling. It was during this time that the safety and training manager approached me to become involved with the specialty. I was very keen and agreed, and instantly commenced learning the process of developing training packages. So much so that I was integral in Century Drilling being approved as a RTO. I then represented Century during the development of the first drilling training package (DRT98), endorsed in 1998.

In 2004, I worked for Boart Longyear in Australia when it seemed they were acquiring most drilling companies in Australia and New Zealand. I commenced in a safety and training role and experienced the stress that a company endures during rapid expansion. Safety performance was at an all-time low, and the team of approximately 1250 personnel across Australian and New Zealand operations were feeling pressured as the annual personnel turnover rate hit 50 %.

An influx of new and inexperienced workers into daily operations posed a challenge, and one that required external assistance. Sourcing an external training provider to support our team wasn’t easy, as training and development within the drilling industry was nonexistent at the time. Demand for personnel was so intense, that new hires were being recruited and flown to various Australian drilling sites within days of responding to job listings. It was the ‘perfect storm’ in that we had high volumes of inexperienced drillers who were expected to train on the job. We needed an external service provider who could train industry entrants before we recruited and assigned them to rigs. The training would expose interested individuals to offsider or driller’s assistant (DA) tasks to ensure that new personnel met a level of understanding and skills before employment.

GT: Tell us about competency-based training, or CBT. What is it?

IC: Competency-based training (CBT) references industry-endorsed standards – knowledge and performance criteria deemed vital to successfully undertake a role i.e. driller’s assistant (DA). A person is deemed competent when they can demonstrate that they can perform a role against the standard during an assessment process. Assessments are administered by either a trainer, assessor or experienced person who understands the role and the various tasks to then decide or make judgement on an individual’s performance against the standard(s). In Australia, the drilling industry training package has evolved since the original DRT98 some 22 years ago, and now forms part of the Resources and Infrastructure Industries Training package (RII15).

GT: Why should drillers undertake CBT?

IC: Since developing the initial training package, the Australian drilling industry continues to strive to professionalize its image and the entry process. Professions are expected to outline minimum entry requirements and industry development pathways. ADI competes with countless industries to attract new talent; therefore, entry requirements and career pathways must be clear. Such clarity enables drillers to understand necessary skillsets and training requirements before they can progress from one level to the next, should they want to ascend the career ladder or migrate to other sectors of the drilling industry such as from exploration drilling to onshore oil and gas.

GT: What is live, ‘real-time’ training?

IC: When ADI started in 2005, RTOs didn’t offer practical drilling training, and most of the awareness training was through PowerPoint presentations, facilitated by companies during inductions. ADI differentiated by obtaining rigs for potential drillers to learn about, practice on and operate, rather than sit in a class or boardroom. The benefit of owning and utilizing our own training drill rigs is unquestionable in terms of introducing students to the equipment and developing their skills. Safe, practical learning is essential when developing the ability to identify and prevent hazards, while understanding highrisk focus points – hand and body position while tripping drill pipes; managing body and mental fatigue while working in extreme environments, and managing working space during drill tasks such as tool placement. These areas of focus are often foreign to students, and gradual introduction through a training rig, demonstrating competent behavior and stopping the rig when necessary, without the pressures of actual production, has proven very successful. ADI’s hands-on ‘real time’ training delivers superior students who not only understand the process, they recognize what competent behavior is. My motto: ‘Safety is an outcome of competent people behaving competently’.

GT: Training consumes resources, with a compounding effect when retention rates are low. How do you persuade organizations and individuals to invest in CBT?

IC: The longer I’m involved with CBT, the more I recognize the many layers of human resourcing required within our industry. ADI has followed the military and engineering industries’ lead by actively working with high schools to attract school leavers, using a school-based training platform to identify candidates. Once enrolled, industry career pathways and development opportunities are outlined to the candidate and their parents or guardians. Sourcing suitable candidates mitigates the risk of continually filling pre-industry training courses with unsuitable people. During my 15 years of leading ADI and its pre-industry training courses, I’ve witnessed a variance between potential candidates. The notable difference is enthusiasm – whether they’re young with little work experience or they’ve been unemployed or had intermittent work, we look for people who are keen to learn and absorb information.

Training an unsuitable candidate costs time, money and resources, therefore, every effort must be made to source and validate suitable candidates before training commences. ADI partners with government, community groups and the drilling industry to deliver trained and certified candidates at reduced costs to the drilling industry. We do need to broaden our scope to source
and recruit suitable candidates, while providing clear development pathways to improve the industry’s retention rate. These partnerships result in a win-win outcome, with community groups assisting youth into not just employment but careers, while the government builds strong communities through subsidized courses for under-utilized people and school leavers. This year marks ADI’s sixth successful school-based recruitment program.

GT: What’s ADI’s story – the vision, early days, and how much has it changed?

IC: ADI developed from an apparent gap within the industry, which I experienced while working within safety training and development. My intent was to inform, properly train and professionally develop anyone interested in the drilling industry to ensure alignment for both the candidate and the industry. I’m proud to share that some of ADI’s initial students from our first course 15 years ago are still working within the industry today. We endured skepticism, given our approach – a RTO committing an operational drilling rig purely for training was viewed as excessive given the cost of the machine and the fact that it would not be ‘productive’ in terms of lost daily meters, but the ‘value’ was and remains in the training of tomorrow’s industry. We took the risk and committed to the major capital investment and it has paid off and remains a major point of differentiation with other RTOs. Today, ADI operates a successful school-based program with 30 high schools across Queensland, Australia and Western Australia will follow later this year.

Since 2012, ADI’s learning content has shifted from print-based to digital, and just last year, we purchased the rights to our e-Learning platform. We added a mobile app in 2018 which we’ve since improved – specifically its offline capability to conduct competency-based observations (CBOs) for a paperless system that can be implemented across client sites with ease. ADI’s learning and assessment system provides for continual monitoring of workforce competencies across multiple sites.

Exciting projects are in the pipeline, although investing in technology to improve the industry interface is ADI’s primary focus and strategy right now. ADI remains committed to providing our clients with flexibility and choice, through various services and partnerships where qualified trainer and assessors undertake workplace assessments, training and upskilling of current employees; facilitate traineeships, recognize prior learning (RPL) and provide pathway programs for new personnel.

GT: You worked the rigs as a driller for eight years, upholding safety as key to a successful operation. Describe the evolution of drilling safety standards since 2000, and how does the drilling industry compare with other exploration groups?

IC: There’s been significant improvement within the industry since I started in 1989. Specifically, machinery design, semi-automation of process, and training, recruitment and development. I’ve also witnessed a dramatic improvement in the caliber of skilled personnel and the management and operation of drilling companies. Today’s drilling supervisors and managers appear to have a much more balanced approach towards operations and people. Acceptance of and compliance with environmental, training and safety standards has instilled a culture of safe production, alongside the introduction of new technology and equipment such as rod handling systems, while minimizing our environmental footprint through compact machines and mud systems. Continual improvement of down hole tools has resulted in deeper, consistent drilling across a wider variety of ground formations. These collective improvements were instigated by mining houses insisting on consistent performance from drilling companies and have served to enhance the industry’s reputation and performance. Today the drilling industry performs well against similar industries, and in some cases, we lead in compliance despite challenging working conditions.

GT: What are the frequent safety breaches at rigs, and how can we overcome them?

IC: Team leaders (drillers/supervisors) need to consider their behavior toward their colleagues, and especially under pressure. In Australia, manual handling-related injuries represent a significant portion of incidents among new entrants. It’s to be expected, given the high-risk nature of driller assistant tasks; yet the incidents are avoidable. I remain optimistic as a new generation of team leaders are trained and understand the importance and value of efficient, safe productivity. Driller and supervisor behavior is critical to retaining skilled personnel and attracting inspired candidates.

GT: What’s your advice to drillers – the green and the stalwarts in today’s climate?

IC: Change is inevitable, as witnessed this past decade. Advancement in machinery design and information management will continue, so it’s advisable for everyone to capitalize on personal and professional development opportunities, particularly for the stalwarts – their accumulated knowledge and wealth of experience is invaluable and should be harnessed through training and mentorship.

Drill training

GT: What’s the future for global drilling training and development?

IC: There is local momentum, yet no individual or group has managed to successfully implement a global drilling competency standard that can be applied across operations in multiple countries, which is what the industry needs. I maintain that Australia’s RII standards are exceptional and realize qualified candidates. Canadian standards have a solid reputation, but I haven’t personally contributed or been exposed to them. I’m aware of several training organizations that have successfully implemented standardized assessment systems locally. Whoever implements global assessment standardization will lead the way. ADI partners with drilling companies intent on developing and training personnel, and our focus is to support and deliver this outcome as a priority. ADI continues to invest in online systems to uphold our global growth strategy.

GT: What are the five most important lessons emphasized during ADI’s training?

IC: Drilling as a career: the environment, the industry and relationships. We outline expected competencies, the assessment process, and the personal strain that fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) work can impart on relationships and mental health. We discuss pay structures and the importance of sound financial planning, and even successful social media engagement to maintain a strong professional network. Some new entrants do refer to the television series, Black Gold. Demystifying what should happen at a drill rig is important to establish safe behavior and attitudes, client/employer expectation, and how fitness for work policies shape our lives. We reiterate practicing good communication – being contactable in case of emergency or when there are changes to work plans or rosters.

The machine and worksite: drilling terminology is confusing, therefore familiarization is key to swift integration, as is safe workplace layout and awareness. Drilling asset costs: understanding the typically expensive cost of drilling equipment shapes personnel’s focus and choices, particularly the driller or DA who can visualize the impact of cost on daily targets.

Tooling and ancillary equipment: we comprehensively explore tools and equipment, stripping down hole tools (coring barrels) and then name aspects as we reassemble. We demonstrate worn components so that trainees recognize when new parts are required while servicing tubes, back ends and wet ends. Using correct component names is vital to cement parts recognition at an early stage.

Practice, practice and more practice: we literally fire up the rig and drill. We progress slowly and stop whenever body and hand positions require correcting, while maintaining housekeeping standards and
spatial awareness within small teams. As each task is completed correctly, we increase momentum so that trainees experience typical working intensity at the rig, exposing a trainee’s ability to plan and maintain tool placement on an operating floor. Trainees can become fatigued or complacent, throwing tools and being unaware of the trip hazards when winches and wire lines are in operation. Stopping the rig to highlight such hazards delivers a higher level of understanding and recognition of the behavior. Toolbox debriefings are integral, and repeated failures are discussed with individuals, and improved performance is expected.

GT: What differentiates ADI from other RTOs?

IC: ADI’s point of difference is attributed to people, content and technology. We aim to find and develop the best people for the drilling industry. Our focus has evolved over 15 years, adding the school pathway program while developing relationships with migrant communities and industry groups.

ADI strives to develop the best content, supported by strong practical training. The team is tireless in its efforts to develop partnerships with suppliers and drilling equipment manufacturers, providing access to engineers and experts who review and apply our training materials against industry products and real-time scenarios, as well as lend their expertise to provide practical tips and advice at our training rigs.

Our team maintains a competitive edge through passionate interest in and pursuit of emerging technology, particularly at remote locations and sites. Identifying technology that assists to efficiently manage information by way of access, usage and delivery is important. The industry can be reactive, therefore a scalable platform is important, as is a reduced reliance on paper-based systems, particularly at remote or multiple sites when monitoring training and assessment activities.

GT: While facilitating, do you identify who will ‘make it’ and who will ‘break’? Are certain personalities more aligned to the industry than others?

IC: Facilitating training provides unique insight. Resilience, ability to work under pressure, communication style and overall suitability to the industry are important factors when considering a drilling career. I often consider how an individual approaches daily tasks at the rig and how they communicate with their peers. I initially coach heavily and then step back as practical training progresses and trainees reach a point where I hardly need to remind them of the next task. Trainees who strive to complete all tasks and prepare and service tools before the driller needs them are those who I feel confident recommending. There’s a definite personality type that seems to succeed at our courses. Interestingly, the students from our school program who are often full of energy and labelled ‘clowns’ or ‘larrikins’ bring a certain level of camaraderie or banter at the rig, which keeps the group alert and can make the learning process fun. Days at the rigs can be hot and very humid and with heavy rain so it’s important to keep spirits high. It’s rewarding to watch these characters step into trainee driller and driller roles.

GT: Let’s talk demographics. Who attends ADI courses?

IC: Four distinct streams typically attend our drilling courses:
1. Individuals through government programs aimed at assisting students (school leavers and underutilized people) to enter the drilling industry.
2. New and existing employees within drilling companies: these students are either engaged in traineeships or fee for service, and are typically managed through our partnering agreement, accessing ADI’s online learning, with assessments undertaken by endorsed trainers and assessors.
3. School-based pathway programs funded by state governments aimed at students who may be disengaged and uncertain as to what trade career to pursue.
4. Students funding their own professional development, traveling near and far to ADI’s Queensland training base for higher learning, or to obtain recognition of prior learning (RPL) as either short courses or full qualifications.

GT: What’s your take on digital drill rigs, control panels and automation?

IC: I recently inspected a new digital drill rig and considered its benefits for training and mentoring. ADI’s top drive drill rig is used for training new entrants for offsiding roles, however, designing a certificate III driller’s course requires that we gather performance data for analysis and skill refinement, which is difficult to do with an older model pilot hydraulic drill rig such as our current training rig. A digital control panel allows parameters to be set and a drill mentor can be alerted if parameters are breached. Our current approach is to start trainees on a pilot hydraulic machine to develop basic skills before exposing them to a digital or automated environment to develop learning.

GT: What’re the three most common human-induced/down the hole drilling issues?

IC: Inexperience and exposure; drop in currency, and drilling tool parameters.

Inexperience and exposure: mistakes occur due to inconsistent or insufficient hours spent drilling different formations. This isn’t the fault of the individual, as they may have started their drilling career in a mine and subsequently remained in that specific environment. Tackling new formations can unsettle a driller, leading to poor or uninformed choices, resulting in downhole issues. Long-term, mine-based drilling projects are an excellent platform for training new drillers, however, drillers should also be encouraged to rotate to other sites where they can be challenged to develop their skillsets, but it can be cost prohibitive in the short-term.

Drop in currency: when experienced personnel continue to undertake a singular drilling method, such as short diamond coring programs. Suddenly, a driller may be required to set a casing wedge or run a downhole motor, yet it’s been some time – months or years since they’ve attempted such a task, which could cause a lapse in judgement, resulting in downhole problems and ultimately, downtime for the operation.

Drilling tool parameters: the industry’s evolved from an era where drillers were instructed at site, standing beside an experienced driller. I’m not suggesting this is an incorrect training method, but it does expose the industry to interpretation of safe operating parameters of downhole tools, evidenced when assessing drillers who operate the same downhole tools yet obtain various answers.

GT: Name your preferred drilling innovation.

IC: The wireline coring system is the standout benchmark, given its development and innovation over the years. Fundamentally it hasn’t changed a lot, yet targeted refinement has led to vast improvements in productivity and safety.

GT: What’s the future of drilling? Will 2020 be promising for diamond drilling?

IC: It’s going to be a busy year for the ADI team, as we operate in a competitive market – sourcing and developing the best talent for our drilling clients. Ultimately, we strive for efficiency which results in a win-win for all.