Big Oil's well of employees is running dry

Bruce Williams is a guy who can talk about mud for 40 minutes without realizing you stopped listening 20 minutes ago.

Yes, mud. Drilling mud.

He finds it fascinating. He even uses the word glamorous to describe his gritty profession.

Meet a true Texas roughneck - a man who, for the past quarter-century, has spent his life drilling holes in the ground looking for oil.

But drilling vets like Mr. Williams are hard to find these days. The US oil industry has had such a long downturn that, now, when crude prices are high enough to revive exploration beneath America's own fields, it's almost impossible to find workers who know their way around a rig.

The result: Companies such as Williams's employer, Ringo Drilling Co. - one of the last remaining independent drilling firms in the Abilene area - aren't able to fully capitalize on the favorable conditions of the moment.

Ringo is running six rigs, but it is getting more contracts every day. It has other rigs ready to go, "but we don't have enough people to run them," says Williams.

It takes 13 people to operate a drilling rig round the clock. Finding those 13 people is the No. 1 problem facing the industry right now, oil analysts say.

Businesses desperate for workers are getting creative. In Oklahoma, field recruiters are waiting for parolees outside prison gates. In Alaska, oil producers are joining forces to find and train employees. And in Texas, songs play on the radio with lyrics like: "Roughnecks, come home. We're busy again."

But it's uncertain if or when experienced roughnecks will return. Across the US, half a million oil-field-related jobs were lost since the mid-1980s - and most of those workers subsequently went into jobs that aren't subject to the boom-and-bust cycle that afflicts the oil industry.

So for every oil veteran who retires or leaves the business, a lifetime of knowledge leaves with them.

"I wish there was more people excited about it," says Williams, a drilling supervisor for Ringo. "You could be working in an office all day or a factory, staring at the same four walls. Working on a rig, you get to see different parts of the country, you're outside, you're your own boss. I just can't see anything wrong with that. Why other ol' boys can't see it, I don't know."

In the shadow of a company drilling rig, he reaches down and grabs a handful of runoff from the mud pit. Straining it through his fingers, he explains that it is a mixture of shale, red bed, and lime. Lime is what you want to see more of - it spells oil in these parts.

So the draw works keeps plunging pipe collar into the earth until it reaches that magic depth. In this case, they figure 6,100 feet.

One local drilling company is said to be buying all the used rigs available, simply for the men working on them.

While every industry is suffering worker shortages in this booming economy, the oil business is in a "whole different realm," says Bill Stevens, executive vice president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.

"What has made this nation great has been our ability to produce our own energy. If we can't do that anymore, does that affect our ability to remain great?" he asks. "The industry is so weakened after four decades of roller-coaster rides. And each time, you don't come out quite as strong as the last time."

As a result, there's been an oil brain drain, as more and more experienced engineers, geologists, geophysicists, and drilling supervisors leave for good - people like Williams who can look at a handful of rock shavings and tell if there's oil below. "When you lose that experience and intuition, you don't get it back quickly," Mr. Stevens says.

Nobody left to train

Wayne Davis has spent years training roughnecks. He's the program manager at the Texas Engineering Extension Service, which teaches everything from well control to pipe tripping to drilling muds.

"I had a fellow call me this morning from Washington State, wanting to come to school. I had to tell him we ain't running classes," he says. "We can't fill 'em up, the simple fact is."

Mr. Davis is tall, well beyond retirement age, and decked out in ostrich cowboy boots. A bumper sticker on his office door reads: "Have you hugged your driller today?"

The training program, a vocational arm of Texas A&M University, began in 1981 - at the end of the boom of the late 1970s. The school used to advertise in states as far away as New York and draw about 100 students a year. Not anymore.

The last rig-crew training program Davis ran here was February 1999. But he's not worried. "It's a cyclical business."

He should know. He left twice himself during down swings - once in 1983 when he worked a total of eight days. But, like so many in this unpredictable industry, he was drawn back during better times.

"Looking at this stuff out here you gotta wonder, how could anybody love this? But I've worked in 15 states and five foreign countries and it's the people that make the difference," says the 47-year veteran.

Certainly, there is a mystique to the business. It's hard, dirty, dangerous work. But it's also rugged and wild.

Davis hands over a brochure and winks: "You're over 21 and can lift 100 pounds, right? Would you like an enrollment form? You'll make more money than writing for any newspaper."

Indeed, most of those still in the industry say it's the money that keeps them interested. It certainly can't be the hours. Many companies require their employees to work seven days a week, with only Christmas Day off.

Good pay, lousy hours

But oil companies ask, in what other industry can a high-school dropout make $40,000 a year to start?

At the Bandera Drilling Co. in Abilene, floor hands make $11.75 an hour and drillers make $14.50 an hour. That is up from 1996, when floor hands made $8.60 an hour and drillers made $10.35 an hour.

"Wages are starting to go up again," says Randy Mayfield, the yard supervisor at Bandera. "That's the best thing to happen to the industry in a long time"

Indeed, say oil analysts, raising salaries is the answer to rustling up more roustabouts, roughnecks, and rig operators. But that can hurt smaller oil companies with smaller budgets. With personnel limited, larger companies lure workers away from the smaller ones.

Bandera owner Ray Brazzel says he lost a veteran rig supervisor to one of the major oil companies just this week.

"There are some big offers out there right now," he says. "But they'll lay them off when things turn bad. We don't lay our people off."

When times get tough and drilling slows, he simply works his employees in the yard, refurbishing old derricks and repainting mud pits.

Mr. Brazzel started out as a roughneck in 1956 in Louisiana and started his own business in 1975. Back then, he had almost 1,000 employees and 14 different corporations, from mud machines to well servicing. Now, he maintains around 100 employees and sticks strictly to drilling.

"I never tried to get back to that," he says, leaning back in his brown leather chair. "They killed my ambition."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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