HOUSTON–Just two weeks ago, Breanna Ward called a recruiter hoping to find a job in the oil and gas business.
A friend’s boyfriend told her she needed to get into the energy industry, even though she’s only 22 and has never worked in oil and gas. So she decided to attend this week’s Offshore Technology Conference at Reliant Park. Then she realized she couldn’t afford the $210 attendance fee for the four day convention. And then, she got a lucky break.
“I went to a recruiting agency and before I knew it, he hired me to work at one of the booths,” she says, laughing at the idea that she’s making money on a job that’s actually helping her look for work.
Opportunity knocks at the OTC, one of the year’s biggest conventions in Houston. Amid the acres of booths displaying the latest arcane products marketed for the energy industry sits the biggest job fair in the city. Recruiters have set up booths to attract job seekers in the suddenly hot oil and gas business.
Growing demand for oil from developing countries like China and India has increased prices and brought confidence to the historically volatile energy industry. Meanwhile, fracking and other new extraction technologies have revolutionized domestic production and raised the distinct possibility that the United States could soon become energy independent.
“The price of oil has come back up,” said Edward Stokes, a project coordination manager with Brass LNG Ltd. “The demand is steadily rising. We’re using something like 87-million barrels of oil in the world per day. And it’s projected to go up to over a hundred (million) 20 or 30 years from now. To produce that kind of energy, you’ve got to have people.”
The OTC today doesn’t exactly match the legendary excess of the halcyon 1970s and 1980s. Back then, an air traffic control center coordinated helicopters ferrying conventioneers from distant hotels, prostitutes plied their trade in parking lot trailers and exhibitors slipping hundred dollar bills to photojournalists trying to bribe their way onto television news. Today, the conference is more subdued, but around Reliant Park there’s a palpable sense that the industry that went bust in the 1980s is now once again booming.
“Whenever the oil prices are doing as well as they’re doing, you’ve got people hiring,” Cowan said. “You’ve got people trying to fill very technical positions, so if you’re an engineer, you’re a very hot commodity right now.”
The data proves the industry has bounced back. In March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated 193,000 people were working in oil and gas extraction, a dramatic improvement from the 124,000 jobs during same month a decade earlier.
But the industry is still trying to recover from a talent drain that lasted decades. After the bust, college students steered away from degrees tied to the flattened energy business. As a result, a graph showing the ages of workers in the industry might look like a hammock, with a lot of young people just jumping into the business and a lot of older people approaching retirement.
“Old people like me that have gray hair, maybe five years or ten years from now will be leaving the oil and gas job market,” Stokes said. “So we need more people.”
Still, someone just walking off the street won’t necessarily score a job. Recruiters say they’re looking not for rookies, but for employees with experience. Anybody with a petroleum engineering degree is very popular.
“The key thing for the worker is getting some experience,” Cowan said. “These guys definitely want people to come in and have the experience. You can’t just expect to have a great job without having the experience.”