Petroleum Industry Hunts for U.S. Workers

The oil and gas industry is worried about having enough workers for future expansion in the United States. Petroleum engineering hasn't been a popular profession among young people. Companies are even having trouble finding enough rig workers. But outreach efforts are beginning to pay off a little bit. An industry training center for rig workers is beginning to see a surge in enrollment.

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The oil and gas industry needs more workers, especially in the Rocky Mountain states where a natural gas boom has companies scrambling to fill jobs. The industry says there is a shortage of petroleum engineers - those are the folks who find new sources of oil and gas - and roughnecks; they do the actual drilling. NPR's Jeff Brady visited a school that is training a new generation of roughnecks.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

This school isn't all classrooms and textbooks, it's also grueling work on a tall drilling rig out back.

(Soundbite of men lifting equipment)

BRADY: Three men lift a three hundred pound piece of equipment on a queue, then they put it down. Then they lift it again, John Muse with the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Training Center in Casper, Wyoming says he's testing stamina. Away from the heavy lifting a dozen other students run up and down the metal stairs.

Mr. JOHN MUSE (Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Training Center): Doing this repetitiously gives you just a drop in the bucket as how you would feel at the end of your tower at about the tenth or eleventh hour before you get off work.

BRADY: You said the end of your tower?

Mr. MUSE: Tower. A tower is a 12 hour work period.

BRADY: Most of us have a 8 hour.

Mr. MUSE: Or shift. Yeah, well. In the oil field it's a little different.

BRADY: So far the center has graduated more than 500 men. No women have signed up yet. All of the graduates now have jobs. The recruits come from all over. Denise McCourt, with the American Petroleum Institute, says it's not possible to find enough workers just in Wyoming.

Ms. DENISE MCCOURT (American Petroleum Institute): The search is going in places where there are very, very small populations, and so consequently even if we go out there and say, hey come and take our good paying jobs, the reality is the talent pool isn't big enough to draw from. So we're drawing from other places.

BRADY: And it isn't just the jobs that'll make you sweat. The search for white collar workers is even more complicated. College-bound high schoolers have been shunning petroleum engineering as a career choice. The American Petroleum Institute says university enrollment in fields associated with the industry has dropped by 85 percent since the oil boom in the 1980s.

McCourt says complicating that, fewer students seem interested in math and science.

Ms. MCCOURT: If you're going to be a petroleum engineer, you got to kind of know in the eighth grade, because you got to start taking those math and science courses the minute you hit high school.

BRADY: The industry is talking with school guidance counselors, hoping they'll encourage more students to consider becoming petroleum engineers. A Petroleum Institute report suggest the industry has gotten a bad reputation among job seekers. After the last boom, oil companies shed more than half their workers, making the petroleum industry seem like a bad choice for those who want stable employment.

But McCourt is trying to get the word out that those days are over. The industry is hiring again, and no one expects petroleum prices to fall as quickly as they did when the '80s boom went bust.

It turns out the current bust in another part of the country may help out the oil companies.

Mr. JASON PATTERSON (Petroleum Worker): There is not a lot of jobs out in Michigan, so we thought we'd go west. Heard it was just booming out here, so we thought we'd come get some money.

BRADY: Jason Patterson is out of breath from running the training center's obstacle course. He's 27 years old and lives with his wife and two daughters, just outside Flint, where the auto industry has fallen on hard times. He understands that his new life as a roughneck won't be easy.

Mr. PATTERSON: Up and down sand hills, up and down stairs, lots of real, real man work. So I'm going to see if I'm a real man or not.

BRADY: How's it going so far?

Mr. PATTERSON: It's pretty cool. I like it a lot. I'm getting muscles I didn't know I had before. I guess they've always been there, I just didn't - was not aware of them.

BRADY: Patterson says he'll work 12 hours a day for a week at a time. But then he'll have time off to spend with his family. And he says Wyoming is a better place to raise his daughters.

Mr. PATTERSON: There's no skyscrapers, there's no smog, there's no anything, lots of hunting and fishing, they say. Haven't gotten a chance to do anything yet, but come here and go to bed (unintelligible) it's just beautiful out here. The people are real nice. So we're all ready to go.

BRADY: Patterson and the other students don't have to pay any tuition. The state of Wyoming and Petroleum companies pick up the tab. Registrar Bill Murphy says he recruits from 43 states and doesn't have much difficulty filling slots.

Mr. BILL MURPHY (Registrar): It's not hard at all when we tell them they can earn up to $60,000 in their first year and work about six months out of the year. They're going to be pretty excited about it. In fact, we're booked about three to four weeks out.

BRADY: The training center recently found a new source of students: military veterans. The federal government granted the center a half million dollars to train about 300 veterans over the next year. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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