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The unemployment rate here in the U.S. is high, above eight percent. But at least one industry insists it can't find and hire experienced workers fast enough. Thousands of older employees are beginning to retire from the oil and gas industry.
And as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, the shortage comes at the very moment high oil prices have companies hoping to drill more.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Look across the oil fields in the U.S. and offshore and you'll see a lot more gray hair than just a few decades back. A hiring lull during the 1980s oil bust has left a generation gap.
JIM NOE: We've struggled, as an industry, to attract young workers and I think there's a lot of reasons for that.
BRADY: Jim Noe is senior vice president at Hercules Offshore in Houston. He suspects one reason is job security. The oil business is cyclical and companies tend to layoff workers when prices decline. But Noe says there are big pluses that come with an oil industry job; there's travel and, given the current worker shortage, good pay.
NOE: Straight out of high school, no skills, we pay you $55,000 a year with full benefits, 401k, health care coverage, et cetera. And we're still struggling to attract workers here at Hercules.
BRADY: Fifty-five thousand dollars a year would be attractive even to college students facing a difficult job market after they graduate.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
BRADY: But talk to Temple University students on the street in Philadelphia and you'll learn the oil industry's recruiting problems run deeper than just job security and pay. Nick Nothaft is a freshman studying linguistics. She says environmental concerns and high gas prices have given the industry a bad reputation.
NICK NOTHAFT: I just don't imagine myself working for that industry. I don't have a good impression of it, I would say. And it just doesn't seem like something that would be attractive to me.
BRADY: Down the street, junior Dashiell Sears is studying political science and would like to work for a politician in the future. He thinks having big oil on his resume could jeopardize that.
DASHIELL SEARS: If I was going to out for this very, I'll say, liberal office I want to work for them and I have ExxonMobil on there and I worked on their PR and they're taking all these subsidies that they're totally against, it doesn't work toward me.
BRADY: Fortunately for the oil industry there are places in the country where people are more likely to want the jobs it's offering. At a Lone Star College campus outside Houston, instructor Ron Gardner's class is full.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
RON GARDNER: You hear that whining. That whining is the actual bearing itself in this particular shaft going bad.
BRADY: Among the students learning about basic engineering is 26-year-old Salina Evans.
SALINA EVANS: A joke we have in class is unless you smell like gas then, you know, you won't be in the oil and gas industry. So, I guess we're trying to smell like gas in here.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BRADY: Evans works nights at a home improvement store. After this training program, she hopes to land a hands-on job out in the field. A few seats down is 40-year-old Brian Moorehead.
BRIAN MOOREHEAD: My background, I guess, is in teaching, education. Just looking for something more technical, just kind of reinventing myself.
BRADY: Moorehead says the oil industry's good pay is appealing
MOOREHEAD: Oh yeah, upper 80s, 90s. With three, four, five years experience, six figures - yeah, so that's where I'm hoping to be.
BRADY: Lone Star College is just one of the organizations training new workers for what has been dubbed the great crew change within the oil industry. PetroSkills is another. It trains a lot of engineering graduates who are just getting into the business. Managing director Ford Brett says the industry's demand for new workers has been good for his company.
FORD BRETT: What's happened to our business, since the year 2000, is it's gone up several times many times, as a result of companies anticipating this and trying to get ahead of the curve a little bit on managing this big crew change.
BRADY: One survey predicts 22,000 geoscientists and engineers will leave the oil business in just the next three years, mostly for retirement. With high oil prices, companies have ambitious drilling plans. To fulfill them, they'll need to attract a new generation of workers fast.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.
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