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