Oil-field help wanted in Oklahoma

Aug 28, 2004 02:00 AM

Employment opportunities abound on the decks of drilling rigs in Oklahoma, where high natural gas prices have led to a build-up in drilling activity.
"We probably have 20 vacancies every day," said John Cromling, who oversees the drilling operations in Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle for Unit Drilling.

Drilling activity in Oklahoma is at an 18-year high, but experienced oil-field workers are in short supply. Many abandoned the industry for more stable employment in 1998-99, when energy prices plummeted to historic lows and producers stopped drilling. Although prices have returned to lucrative levels and demand for drilling rigs is soaring, the industry is being restrained by a lack of oil-field workers. The shortage is causing delays in some drilling projects.
"We've been delayed as a result of waiting for qualified crews," said Rob Johnston of Houston-based Apache, which has offices in Tulsa.

Cromling said today's roughneck has more time off, makes more money and enjoys the same benefits granted to white-collar workers. "We've done a poor job as an industry of selling what we have," he said.
Some drilling companies offer their crewmen a retirement plan, paid vacation and a salary well above $ 30,000 a year. At Tulsa-based Unit Drilling, beginning oil-field workers can earn between $ 3,300 and $ 4,000 a month.
"That's for working two weeks," Cromling said. What's more, no experience is required, a major change from the past when only the most experienced crewmen were hired.
"Those days are gone," Cromling said.

Crewmen on a drilling rig used to work seven days a week. Today, crews work seven days straight and then get seven days off. Also, housing is provided at the site, reducing long commutes to once a week.
"This enables crewmen to work on a rig far from home," Cromling said. "This is similar to what offshore drilling companies have been doing for years."
The High Plains Technology Centre in Woodward offers a one-week course to train potential oil-field employees.
"We hire almost half of their graduates," Cromling said.

The course is funded by a $ 1.5 mm grant from the US Labour Department. Most students are offered jobs upon completion of the course, said John Paine, the program's recruiting and placement coordinator.
"We don't guarantee a job, but I'd say over 80 % are being hired," Paine said. Most graduates receive a starting salary of about $ 16 an hour, Paine said. Although new technologies have made a roughneck's job easier, the work is still physically demanding.
"It takes an exceptional young man or young lady to do this work," Paine said. "It's still dirty and, of course, there's no air-conditioning or heating."

But oil-field jobs aren't exactly stable. They come and go along with the ups and downs of energy prices. Cromling said he is confident that energy prices are going to remain at levels that justify long-term employment for oil-field workers.
"I can tell a young person today, in all honesty, you won't have to worry about it," he said.
Unit Drilling has about 100 rigs. About 66 of them are under contract in Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle.
"Of the 100 rigs we own, every one is drilling for natural gas," Cromling said.

Oklahoma is the nation's third-largest gas-producing state.
The number of active drilling rigs in Oklahoma is up 15 % from a year ago, according to Houston-based Baker Hughes.

Source: Tulsa World
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