Oil Field Work Pays Well But The Conditions Aren't For Everyone

Some of the best paying jobs in the American West are in the oil and gas industry. But only 18 percent are held by women, and many of those are office jobs which pay considerably less.

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OK, some of the best-paying jobs in the American West are in the oil and gas industry. But - get this number - only 18% of those jobs are held by women, and many of those are office jobs which pay considerably less. Now with a growing need for labor, some companies are turning to women to work in the oil fields, as Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards reports.

MELODIE EDWARDS, BYLINE: On a sagebrush ridge, an oil rig towers over the city of Casper, Wyoming. Its scaffolding is squeaky clean because it's not actually in operation. It's a training rig. A group of young men in hard hats gathers around. The instructor, Cliff Sherwood, is giving a lesson in safety.

CLIFF SHERWOOD: Anybody want to try this one? Huh? Go ahead.

EDWARDS: A student steps forward to latch a pipe to a hoist.

SHERWOOD: No, no, no, no, you're going to have to step one side to latch it.

EDWARDS: Rig workers have to be able to lift incredibly heavy equipment for long hours and often in terrible weather. Sherwood says a lot of his male students can't stick it out. As for women...

SHERWOOD: Getting the people to work under those conditions -there are people who come out, and they think it's a good idea. And they're out there two or three days, and they find out - short order - it's not for them.

EDWARDS: There's not a single woman in Sherwood's class. One problem is the lifestyle. Shifts are two weeks long. It often means living in man-camps, trailers filled with bunk beds, twenty-four seven - not ideal for single moms like Tika Perry (ph). She's training to become a welder because it's one of the only jobs that doesn't require living on location. She's got her childcare covered for now.

TIKA PERRY: It's actually a home daycare- just a family friend of ours. She said that she would watch him for the six weeks that I do the class.

EDWARDS: But once she gets a job, she knows she'll work long hours and come home late most nights. It isn't just physical strength and juggling family life that keeps women away. It's being the only woman anywhere in sight. Kelly Combs (ph) has been a pump truck operator for Halliburton for two and a half years. She says she has to work harder to get the same recognition her male coworkers received.

KELLY COMBS: Every day, still, when there's new people out here - whether it be the people that we work for or my coworkers, me being a female - and, you know, they're looking at me and judging me a lot more than their male counterparts.

EDWARDS: But still, Combs likes her job because the good pay. Truck drivers make as much as $50,000 a year - allows her to travel all over the world.

COMBS: I've been to Spain, and I've been to Bucharest, Romania. Last year I went to Moscow, and next year I'll go to Tanzania.

EDWARDS: Combs's company, Halliburton, is trying to attract more women like her. Lisa Finch is the company's diversity and inclusion officer, who heads those initiatives.

LISA FINCH: Well, I think anytime you bring into the candidate pool an additional skill set or an additional option, that's always a benefit. And considering that women are - they're half the population, that is a benefit to us.

EDWARDS: Wyoming's gender-wage gap is the worst in the US. State Representative Cathy Connolly wrote a report on the problem. She says energy companies would benefit by hiring more women because they are less transient.

REPRESENTATIVE CATHY CONNOLLY: The reality, here, of man-camps - you know, it's a reality. If we want to move away from that model - we want them to stay in our communities, which we do, raise their kids in our community, which I think we do, then we need to encourage companies to think about their workforce in that kind of way.

EDWARDS: Connolly says the next step is for government agencies to ask harder questions before companies move in, like how women will be promoted and how they plan to close the wage gap. For NPR News, I'm Melodie Edwards in Laramie.

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