Regional Eagle Ford job fairs attracting big crowds

For the last few years, South Texas officials have fretted that the abundance of newly available oil field jobs wouldn’t go to local residents, and that companies would have to “import” workers from other parts of the state and U.S.

But when Houston-based BHP Billiton Petroleum needed to hire a range of employees for its Eagle Ford Shale operations, it hit the road with a series of regional job fairs this spring in cities such as Cuero, Victoria, Corpus Christi, Floresville and Kenedy.

More than 300 people showed up at every event, and Steve Pastor, who heads Eagle Ford operations for the company, said that so far it has been able to hire mostly locals for jobs ranging from lease operators to schedulers and superintendents.

“I’ve been very surprised at how successful we’ve been at hiring locally,” Pastor said. “A year ago, I would have never believed it.”

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BHP has about 250 employees in the field already, and estimates that only about 20 of them were hired from outside the region. It plans to hire 85 more people by midsummer and another 85 in the following 12 months.

“We’d like to have locals or folks who can come here and remain locals,” Pastor said.

And while the company has discussed what it would need to do in terms of housing or rotating workers in and out of the region if it did have to hire from the outside, it hasn’t had to put those plans in action yet.

Federico Zaragoza, vice chancellor for economic and workforce development at Alamo Colleges, said he hopes the region has created a pool of people who have a skill set that can be applied to a variety of jobs and have proven they can pass drug tests.

Zaragoza said the challenge for the region is to continually keep up with the training and skill sets needed as the oil field matures. The emphasis now is on drilling, but will gradually shift to production.

Alamo Colleges just approved a new associate degree program in oil and gas processing with a specialty in production — an attempt to create technicians who can follow the work as the field matures. And it’s looking at doing things such as adding an oil and gas certification to its truck-driving program.

“We’re looking at increasing existing programs and contextualizing them. It’s about aligning the programs you have to the industry,” Zaragoza said.

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Thomas Tunstall, a director at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has studied the economic impact of the shale field, said that younger workers may be returning to South Texas, or people who initially couldn’t pass drug tests may have cleaned up in an effort to snag one of the high-paying jobs.

“That may be wishful thinking. But if my parents live there and I come back, obviously I have a place to stay,” he said.

And that would solve one of the other tricky aspects of the oil boom — where to find an affordable place to live while rents have skyrocketed.