Laid-off oil, gas work­ers in de­mand again, but will they re­turn?

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - ANYA LITVAK

PITTS­BURGH — Zach Scott was a year old and his brother was still in the womb when their fa­ther got laid off from Hal­libur­ton in 1986, the year af­ter oil prices tanked and ush­ered in the largest in­dus­try down­turn un­til, some ar­gue, the cur­rent one.

Within two years, 20 per­cent of the work­ers in the oil and gas in­dus­try had lost their jobs. Many of them did not re­turn, and they dis­cour­aged their chil­dren from go­ing into the in­dus­try — cre­at­ing a gen­er­a­tional gap that is now com­ing home to roost.

Scott’s fa­ther did nei­ther of those things. He kept go­ing back to the oil and gas fields, de­spite the mul­ti­ple lay­offs that used to count as bat­tle scars for in­dus­try vet­er­ans.

Cau­tiously, things ap­pear to be turn­ing around again, leav­ing com­pa­nies scram­bling for work­ers and won­der­ing if those they have let go will re­turn. If those for­mer em­ploy­ees don’t come back, will the in­dus­try known for blus­ter, swear­ing and end­less hours away from home be able to re­cruit the hot-shot smarts it needs to move for­ward?

At the end of each cy­cle, about 30 per­cent of the work­ers who lose their jobs don’t come back, said Tony An­gelle, a vice pres­i­dent with Hal­libur­ton. His com­pany is think­ing about ways to at­tract tal­ent now that ac­tiv­ity is pick­ing up again af­ter a two-year slump.

They “don’t want any­thing to do with the oil and gas busi­ness,” he said at the De­vel­op­ing Un­con­ven­tional Gas East con­fer­ence in Pitts­burgh in June.

An­other frac­tion of the for­mer work­force comes back re­luc­tantly, still bit­ter about hav­ing been laid off, he said.

There are peo­ple who fall in love with the busi­ness and never want to leave, said Jared Oehring, vice pres­i­dent of tech­nol­ogy with U.S. Well Ser­vices. But if the busi­ness — cy­cles and all — is to be made worth­while for more than just the die-hards, the tra­di­tion of oil-field cul­ture needs an up­grade.

“If times are tough and su­per­vi­sors are yelling and curs­ing, like the old-school oil busi­ness,” it will re­pel many work­ers, Oehring said.

As oil and gas com­pa­nies are start­ing to ne­go­ti­ate what work-life bal­ance means in the con­text of their busi­ness, even those who choose to re­main are think­ing dif­fer­ently about their work.

Scott is a case in point. Just out of high school in the north­ern Penn­syl­va­nia county of Brad­ford, his fa­ther got him a job at the wash bay of Su­pe­rior Well Ser­vices. It

paid $7.25 an hour, $2 more than his gig at the lo­cal ceme­tery.

Zach Scott took the job and went on think­ing he was go­ing to be a science teacher. Wash­ing trucks turned into an in­tern­ship do­ing lab work, then work in the field — log­ging, blend­ing con­crete, co­or­di­nat­ing hy­draulic frac­tur­ing jobs.

Su­pe­rior hired Scott as an en­gi­neer, even though he had no for­mal en­gi­neer­ing train­ing. Su­pe­rior was work­ing on shal­low wells, not the block­buster shale wells com­mon to­day. The money wasn’t nearly as good as it is now. The hours were tough. There was a lot of curs­ing and crude talk. It was the old-school oil field, and Scott liked it just fine.

In 2009, months af­ter the re­ces­sion had be­gun, he got his first taste of re­al­ity. He was laid off.

That down­turn wasn’t a ma­jor blow. The in­dus­try con­trac­tion was shorter and less se­vere than in pre­vi­ous cy­cles, es­pe­cially in Penn­syl­va­nia, where the Mar­cel­lus Shale had been dis­cov­ered and com­pa­nies rushed to mark their ter­ri­tory in the promis­ing new shale play.

As Scott pre­pared to go back to school to get his teach­ing cer­tifi­cate, he heard from a re­cruiter and even­tu­ally ac­cepted a job as a project man­ager for Pin­na­cle, a Hal­libur­ton com­pany.

“I was pretty much work­ing 340 days out of the year, at least 16 hours a day,” he said. “That’s just field work. Not count­ing phone calls.”

He started work­ing the night shift and mak­ing sales calls dur­ing the day, with the even­tual goal of be­com­ing a dis­trict man­ager and set­tling down. At one point, his boss said he wanted to know about his home life.

“I said, ‘Boss, I’m never home.’”

“What are you say­ing?” his boss said.

“Well, I don’t have a life,” Scott said.

He sought a man­age­rial po­si­tion but didn’t get it and left the com­pany in Au­gust 2013.

Next was a sales job with a wire­line com­pany — out­fits that han­dle the ca­bling and mea­sur­ing de­vices for oil and gas wells — which lasted two years. Then an­other wire­line firm, which lasted a month.

This lay­off came just be­fore Su­per Bowl week­end in 2016. Scott’s fa­ther — who at that point had bounced around to a few other well ser­vice firms — was let go the same week.

An­other month passed and Scott was of­fered a job with Weather­ford, a large oil­field ser­vices com­pany. The most re­cent down­turn was un­der­way, and drilling com­pa­nies were pulling back on their cap­i­tal bud­gets.

Scott had his guard up. He told his would-be boss, “If you can make me feel con­fi­dent about com­ing over there, then I’m your man. But I don’t want to be left out in the cold.”

“He said, ‘Zach, Weather­ford truly be­lieves that the in­dus­try is com­ing back and they’re ready for this re­turn.’”

The re­as­sur­ing voice was laid off two months later, and Scott out­lasted him by only a few weeks.

Over the years, Scott has con­sid­ered go­ing back to his orig­i­nal ca­reer choice. But now he is “hip deep in this stuff.”

“I’ve got a lot of con­tacts,” he said. “At what point do you just walk away?”

Ten years ago, the oil and gas in­dus­try was pluck­ing peo­ple from the street, lur­ing work­ers from other pro­fes­sions and pay­ing them great money to ac­com­mo­date the shale ramp-up, said Bob Ne­w­house, whose Texas-based Ne­w­house Con­sul­tants helps oil and gas com­pa­nies with their tal­ent man­age­ment.

“If you could walk and chew gum, you’re hired,” was the motto of the day.

By the time th­ese new­bies were laid off a few years later, they hadn’t been steeped in the in­dus­try long enough to want to brave its cy­cles again and again.

The evolv­ing oil and gas in­dus­try may not have room for them any­way, as it gets ready for an­other po­ten­tial up­swing, Ne­w­house said.

New tech­nol­ogy and equip­ment, dig­i­ti­za­tion, big data — they all re­quire a dif­fer­ent skill set and may be the rea­son that 81 per­cent of oil and gas CEOs sur­veyed by Ernst & Young ear­lier this year said the in­dus­try will need to re­build its work­force with more ed­u­cated, higher skilled work­ers over the next decade.

It also will need to over­come an im­age prob­lem. That same study and an­other by Deloitte found that younger gen­er­a­tions were turned off by the prospect of oil and gas.

“They pri­mar­ily see the in­dus­try’s ca­reers as un­sta­ble, blue-col­lar, dif­fi­cult, dan­ger­ous and harm­ful to so­ci­ety,” Ernst & Young wrote. “Per­haps most con­cern­ing, more than two out of every three teens be­lieve the oil and gas in­dus­try causes prob­lems rather than solves them.”

The sur­veys showed an­other gen­er­a­tional dis­con­nec­tion. While CEOs thought that salary and the abil­ity to work with cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy would be at the top of the list for young em­ploy­ees, young work­ers who were sur­veyed placed a much greater em­pha­sis on work-life bal­ance, hap­pi­ness at work and sta­bil­ity than did their po­ten­tial bosses.

Part of ac­com­mo­dat­ing that shift is rec­og­niz­ing that the old oil-field cul­ture, that “rough and tum­ble” spirit that both bonded and kept oil­field work­ers on edge in the past, will no longer suf­fice, Ne­w­house said.

Some com­pa­nies use per­son­al­ity pro­files to guide how work­ers in­ter­act with one an­other. Chevron em­ploy­ees an­swer a se­ries of ques­tions de­scrib­ing them­selves and in the end they get a color marker. Red is a “doer.” Green is a “thinker.”

Ne­w­house has seen the col­ors on hard hats and posted on of­fice doors. While the sys­tem risks over­sim­pli­fy­ing, he has found it to be a help­ful in­di­ca­tor for su­per­vi­sors to tai­lor their ap­proach to in­di­vid­ual em­ploy­ees.

On a re­cent muggy Wed­nes­day evening at the Co­raopo­lis Cob­ble­haus Brew­ing Co. out­side Pitts­burgh, where the brew master is an oil and gas en­gi­neer, Scott printed out name tags for guests at a mixer for the net­work­ing group Young Pro­fes­sion­als in En­ergy.

He wore boot-cut jeans with a large horse­shoe belt buckle and dress shoes, a mix­ture he said rep­re­sents a lit­tle bit of the South and a lit­tle bit of him.

When asked for his busi­ness card, he pulled out a pile and fanned them out.

“Which one should I give you?” he won­dered aloud.

There were at least three op­tions: north­east ac­count ex­ec­u­tive for Basin En­ergy Group, sales rep­re­sen­ta­tive for a lu­bri­cant com­pany called Ga­tor In­dus­trial So­lu­tions LLC, and as­so­ciate for AFLAC. He’d left the other two op­tions at home, Scott ex­plained.

He’s jug­gling a hand­ful of gigs with a new per­spec­tive — he’s a new­ly­wed.

He met his wife when he left the field work for sales.

“That’s an­other rea­son why the down­turn is such a huge hit,” he said. “When [work­ers] were trav­el­ing all the time, you didn’t know what you were miss­ing. Now that they know, they don’t want to give it up.”

Scott said he passed on op­por­tu­ni­ties to work in the oil fields of Texas and North Dakota be­cause he didn’t want to give up his courtship.

He has high hopes for the lu­bri­cant busi­ness, though, and might pull his fa­ther back into the oil and gas busi­ness.

His dad, af­ter the lat­est lay­off, took a job with the Penn­syl­va­nia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion and plans to re­tire from the agency.

Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette/LAKE FONG

Zach Scott (right) greets Gin­ger Ran­dall and Michael Krep­sik in the Young Pro­fes­sion­als in En­ergy gath­er­ing at Cob­ble­haus Brew­ing Co. in Co­raopo­lis, Pa. Scott has been laid off from half a dozen oil and gas jobs but he keeps com­ing back.

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