By Jennifer Hiller and Joe Yerardi
The Eagle Ford Shale is turning out to be more than an oil boom. It’s also a shot in the wallet, pulling up personal income in counties across the region — some of the poorest in the state.
With a sudden abundance of well-paid oil field jobs, counties with Eagle Ford Shale wells permitted or in production saw an average increase in per capita income of 13.62 percent between 2008 and 2011, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Texas as a whole saw an increase in per capita income of 1.34 percent during that time period, which included the last recession. Average pay reached $40,147.
The average Eagle Ford county’s per capita income increased from $28,148.92 in 2008, when the boom started, to $31,893.92 in 2011, the latest year for which data is available.
In some counties, income growth outpaced Texas as a whole even more dramatically.
“There’s full employment, literally,” said Larry Dovalina, city administrator in Cotulla in La Salle County, where personal income rose 31 percent in the wake of the oil boom. “Everybody who wants a job has one.”
Dovalina said all employers have had to raise wages to try to retain workers, even for service jobs. The local McDonald’s has a “help wanted” sign with pay at $10 an hour, and Dovalina said each time a new hotel opens to cater to energy companies, maids are able to jump to new jobs at higher pay.
“It’s not just the oil field,” Dovalina said. “It’s all being pushed up or pulled up.”
Dimmit County had the biggest percentage jump in average income, at 36.4 percent. McMullen County’s average personal income jumped 35.9 percent between 2008 and 2011.
Just one county, Bastrop, which is on the eastern edge of the shale play that has seen relatively little oil field activity, saw average personal income decline.
In general, “help wanted” signs have become a fixture across the region. In Karnes County, where personal income rose 15 percent, a sign on U.S. 181 at The Lodge at Karnes City says “Now hiring food service workers.” The new 160-bed location has been rented out for about 18 months to an oil field service company, and provides meals, laundry service and entertainment such as media rooms.
Chris Kemp, hospitality manager for Cotton Logistics, a Katy-based company that provides worker housing at The Lodge and other sites throughout the shale play, said that even food service jobs can pay as much as $12 to $15 an hour.
“This is an opportunity that didn’t exist before, and it’s open to everyone,” Kemp said.
Kemp, who has a background in hotel management, said he was unemployed for about a year and a half before joining Cotton Logistics, and counts himself among those with a new career path thanks to the Eagle Ford. “It’s another job that wasn’t here before,” he said.
Thomas Tunstall, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who studies the play’s economic impact, said the income increases have been sharp due to the capital-intensive nature of the energy industry.
Companies spend so much on drilling rigs and equipment that the cost of hiring workers pales in comparison.
“They’re spending most of their money on the rigs and the parts. There’s lots and lots of capital,” he said. “They have to watch their labor costs, but they want good people. They’re dealing with expensive equipment and they want to minimize accidents.”
It’s a different set of economics than other businesses, where the biggest expense is paying employees.
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong on a well site,” Tunstall said. “You want the best, most competent people you can get.”
But it’s not all easy living.
LaSalle County Judge Joel Rodriguez Jr. said the rise in income has been matched by a rise in the cost of just about everything.
“The cost of living is high. Rents are high,” Rodriguez said. “The price of homes has skyrocketed.”
For people living on fixed incomes or not working in the energy industry, the boom can be a burden. Rents are typically well above $1,000 a month, roughly double what they were a few years ago.
“Their income is not changing. It’s a burden on them,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a burden to be in a rental home.”
Truck driver Patty Gebbie has lived in Three Rivers about 18 months after moving from Washington. She sometimes works as much as 30 hours of overtime per week, and at one point was pulling in $6,000 to $7,000 a month in overtime.
But she said that everything has grown more expensive, including the $3 sandwich at the local café that now costs $7 to $8, which makes her worry for the longtime residents.
“The people with kids in schools who are trying to pay rent are really suffering,” she said. “And once they go up, the prices never go back down.”