Drilling company looks high and low for workers

How hot is offshore drilling? So hot that it’s hard to find enough roustabouts, mechanics and experienced managers to staff all the rigs under construction.

So hot that Ensco, with six new rigs set to debut over the next two years, will need 1,000 more people, said Kurt Basler, the company’s manager of strategic staffing in Houston.

So hot that some 20,000 to 25,000 offshore workers will be needed industrywide over the next two to three years, Basler said.

“The shortages are acute everywhere,” said Steve Colville, president and CEO of the International Association of Drilling Contractors in Houston.

The search for workers with the right skills who would be the right fit has sent companies like Ensco looking outside traditional oil and gas businesses. Not everyone is enthusiastic about working 12 hours a day for up to 28 days straight on a drilling rig half a world away.

But with the right training, even a small-town barber can make a lot of money on a rig.

The last five years have seen an explosion in the number of countries seeking to exploit their energy resources, Colville said. That, in turn, is causing a surge in drilling activity.

Add to that the effect of an aging workforce that is beginning to retire in big numbers, he said. Many workers put off retirement during the last recession, but with the stock market doing better, many are opting to leave now.

Casting a wide net

Ensco recruiters recently hosted about 25 engineering students from Texas A&M University, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, Louisiana State University, the University of Wyoming and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy to tour its newest rig docked in Corpus Christi. They took particular pains to show off the hotel-like quality of the accommodations and food service.

The offshore drilling services provider is also asking its current employees who are military veterans to come up with ways to reach other former service members.

It’s hosting dinners and overnight get-togethers in Europe to attract mechanics and electricians who might be interested in jobs on a drilling platform.

One of the important selling points is getting beyond the common image that life on a rig is grim. One recruiter described the experience as a “five-star hotel,” though Basler said he wouldn’t go that far.

“I’m sure we don’t have the pillows that the five-star hotels have,” he said, laughing.

But he added that the chefs are known for serving top-notch food; the comfortable accommodations include workout facilities and Internet; and the wages for roustabouts start at $50,000.

Overcoming skepticism

Allen Vineyard, a mechanic and electrician by training, was skeptical at first. He headed the automation department for a poultry processing plant in Arkansas and had never before been on a rig. He worried about motion sickness and helicopter crash training that requires an underwater escape.

Plus, he added, the oil and gas industry doesn’t exactly have a great reputation.

But he was also burned out from working six- to seven-day weeks at the poultry plant and figured he’d gone as far as he’d go. When a good friend told Vineyard about the rig job, he jumped at the opportunity.

It turns out that even though he works three weeks straight, he’s working fewer hours over the course of a year. And he’s making more money.

Vineyard stressed his troubleshooting skills when he applied. Lots of computer systems use the same hardware and networking systems, he said, and he could learn what he needed with specialized software training.

“Electricity is electricity, but the specialized equipment is different,” said Vineyard, who has done two “hitches” in the Gulf of Mexico and one in Singapore. He started as an assistant electrician in May and was recently promoted to rig electrician.

21 on, 21 off

The schedule – 21 days on, followed by 21 days off – is working well with his family. He stays in touch with his high-schooler, the only child still at home, by email and telephone. When Vineyard comes home, they can spend a lot of quality time together.

As for his wife?

“When I come back, it’s like having a honeymoon all over again,” he said.

At work, he shares a room with the person who shares his job, so they rarely see each other.

“I have my own bed. It’s not hot bunks,” Vineyard said, referring to the practice of shift workers who use one bed – and the same linens – as one shift ends and the other starts.

In October, London-based Ensco invited about 30 electricians and mechanics to Warsaw, Poland, to hear about what it’s like to live and work on a drilling rig. They came from a variety of other industries including refining, shipbuilding and heavy manufacturing. They were familiar with the offshore industry, but Basler said one of the recruits noted that this was the first time they’d been actively recruited.

About half will receive job offers, he said.

Industry upgrades

The drilling industry has to do more to make sure people know it offers excellent jobs, long-term employment opportunities and high pay, Colville said.

It is working on developing standardized certification programs so job candidates can learn the basics that are recognized in the industry, he said.

The industry is also joining forces with community colleges to make more students and educators aware of the wide assortment of drilling jobs available – from electricians to caterers. Eventually, that should make it easier to navigate the opportunities and figure out what skills and certifications are necessary.

“It happens by happenstance now,” Colville said. “We need to make it attractive to people.”

‘A very good decision’

Fred Ceasar certainly didn’t plan for a career in oil and gas. He was a barber in Alexandria, La., and was happy cutting hair. But his best friend talked up the opportunities in drilling, so Ceasar applied with Ensco. He was hired as a roustabout in 2006 and promoted to assistant crane operator three years later.

“I wasn’t worried about my skills,” he said. “I figured I would learn.”

Ceasar works 21 days in a row in the Gulf of Mexico, followed by 21 days off, and earns twice as much as he did as a barber.

“It was a very good decision. It changed my life. It made a man out of me,” he said.

One of the biggest concerns going in was the food. Ceasar likes soul food, and it turned out that’s what the cooks make.

“They cook what we cook,” he said. “They want to keep you happy.”

The desire for gumbo and cornbread is so intense that the company dispatched one of its chief stewards to the Mediterranean to teach the Cajun techniques to satisfy homesick employees from Louisiana.

“It’s a big unknown,” said Basler, who hopes that recruiting events in Warsaw and Corpus Christi will help spread the word.

“I hope the kids say when they go back to the Marine Academy, ‘You cannot believe what we saw and what we did.’?”

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