Luring top oil talent demands perks

Skyrocketing demand for petroleum engineers and other oil and gas workers has companies going to new lengths to lure top talent and keep employees out of competitors’ grasps.

Winning over recruits isn’t just a matter of providing 35 percent salary hikes and $100,000 signing bonuses. Headhunters say company culture and non-monetary perks are gaining sway in attracting and retaining employees.

Stories of eager employers making unique concessions for high-demand job candidates abound. An oil executive started paying for his employees’ shoeshines. Free gasoline and a reinstated pension enticed an experienced project manager back to a former employer. And recently, a company won a senior engineer by making annual $2,000 donations to employees’ favorite charities, said Houston-based David Armendariz, managing partner at executive search firm Lucas Group.

“It’s not just discussing the roles and responsibilities,” he said of sealing the deal with job candidates. “It’s about painting a very clear picture of what life is like at that company.”

The boom in domestic drilling has led to soaring demand for workers experienced in oil and natural gas fields. Some oil companies are giving their employees bonuses as high as $10,000 for referring a successful recruit.

But energy corporations aren’t competing only against each other for the best young technical minds. They’re vying against the well-branded tech business, with its plethora of employee perks and laid-back West Coast cultures, said John Faraguna, the Houston-based North America president for global recruiting firm Hays.

The world of drilling for crude can seem staid, by comparison.

“In tech, I’m going to do stuff that changes the world,” he said. “Houston is viewed as an old man’s game. There’s a sense that this is a more traditional place.”

New Exxon campus

To attract the most innovative engineering minds, Big Oil is emulating one of the Big Tech’s most successful recruiting tools. Exxon Mobil’s new headquarters in north Houston will consolidate its local employees on a 385-acre campus, featuring on-site child care, fitness classes, and other amenities to improve worker lifestyles. Employees are scheduled to start arriving in 2014.

The campus is designed in the same vein as the Googleplex, the California headquarters of tech giant Google that doubles as an adult playground, with volleyball games, free haircuts and rec rooms.

“Like Microsoft and Google, they’re thinking about campuses that create an environment and culture that feels like a university,” Faraguna said. “When you consolidate your employees, you can afford to have a really nice health club, day care and cafeteria.”

Tech companies regularly rate at the top of the Best Places to Work list produced by career site Glassdoor. Google, Apple and Facebook all made the list’s Top 10, based on anonymous employee reviews of compensation, management, culture and other workplace qualities.

Importance of ‘culture’

This year, Chevron and Dow Chemical broke into the Top 20, with employees touting high pay, flexible schedules and a good work-life balance, said Scott Dobroski, community expert for the California-based career site.

“Employees care about culture almost as much as the salary and benefits packages,” he said.

Turning traditional office spaces into bustling communities can rebrand a company as a fun and convenient place to work, which helps recruitment. And oil companies are working even harder to retain their current staffs.

Counteroffers have become standard, driving some employees’ salaries so high that competitors can’t afford them.

“It’s cheaper for a company to offer a candidate another $50,000 than the cost of replacing them,” which can include paying for a headhunter and training a new worker, in addition to delaying projects and breaking deadlines, said Jon Macaulay, co-director of the Houston office for Spencer Ogden.

“Clients are working extremely hard to lock in these candidates so they make so much money, they just can’t move,” Macaulay said

Scott Hill, managing partner at Houston recruiting firm Queststar, said he’s seen salaries for entry-level engineers jump to six figures. The least experienced engineers were making about $70,000 in 2005, he said. Today, those with less than five years of experience are securing paychecks as high as $140,000.

Golden handcuffs

But the golden handcuffs, the measures employers take to keep workers onboard, are less about dollars and more about a sense of appreciation these days. Especially among younger generations, employees are more loyal when they feel they are being groomed for advancement, recruiters said. So many oil companies are building up their mentoring programs and streamlining their internal talent pipeline.

Murray Resources senior recruiter Mary Hudson said companies are rapidly moving to integrate their internal employee tracking systems across offices, making it easy for managers to find existing employees from Houston to Saudi Arabia with the training, skills, and performance to fill job openings and take on new projects.

“They are trying hard to show development paths so employees can grow and rise in the organization. People don’t want to get into a position and sit and vegetate,” Hudson said.

“You have to offer a package to the person based on the areas that are important to them,” she added. “More money won’t keep somebody. You have to dig a little deeper.”

Survey of oil company employees

As competition for oil and gas professionals stiffens, energy companies are doing more to keep employees content. A recent survey by WorkPlaceDynamics of employees at 244 companies with Houston operations, including 37 energy firms, shows workers in energy are happier with compensation and other cultural aspects of their companies compared to other industries.

My pay is fair for the work I do.

Energy Companies – 73%

Other Industries – 58%

I want to stay at this company for more than a year.

Energy Companies – 77%

Other Industries – 70%

I feel genuinely appreciated at this company.

Energy Companies – 81%

Other Industries – 77%

I have the flexibility I need to balance my work and personal life.

Energy Companies – 78%

Other Industries – 76%

Source: WorkplaceDynamics