Oil field could miss reservoir of new talent

Houston Chronicle

Layoffs may lead the next generation to avoid the industry

Nearly three dozen oil and gas companies visited Texas A&M University last spring to recruit students from its prestigious petroleum engineering program.

This year, the school expects three.

Meanwhile, companies have rescinded job offers to some students, and others are worried about whether they’ll have jobs lined up when they graduate.

“The industry never quite learns its lesson,” said Dan Hill, who chairs the school’s petroleum engineering department.

Until just a few months ago, oil companies had spent years complaining they couldn’t find enough qualified workers to fill their ranks. Today, some of those same companies are shedding employees rapidly.

Since the start of the year, hardly a week has gone by without an oil company announcing personnel cuts. Most notably, the largest service companies – Halliburton, Baker Hughes, Schlumberger and Weatherford – have collectively announced more than 30,000 job cuts worldwide.

Exploration and production companies have cut workers too. Marathon Oil Corp. is cutting at least 10 percent of its workforce, and Apache Corp. and ConocoPhillips have said they may pare undisclosed numbers of workers.

Texas could lose as many as 50,000 upstream jobs as crude prices fall and the energy sector contracts, said Karr Ingham, an economist who studies the energy sector.

“It’s a contradictory message,” said Keith Wolf, managing director of Houston-based staffing firm Murray Resources.

Schlumberger, for example, says on its website that a shortage of skilled, technical workers is “one of the industry’s most critical challenges.”

But in January it announced plans to lay off 9,000 employees.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce affiliate notes in an online report about the energy sector that “not enough is being done today to ensure we have the workforce we will need.”

Last year, the consulting firm Oliver Wyman reported the industry faces a “significant, and growing, talent gap in the next five years” that’s so pronounced oil companies should consider atypical job candidates like police officers and auto mechanics to fill its ranks.

The juxtaposition of an industry lamenting the lack of qualified workforce at a time when layoffs are rampant isn’t lost on those who follow employment trends. “Back just a few months ago … every company we spoke to was at its wit’s end trying to find talent,” Wolf said. “Just a few months later, it’s 1,000 layoffs here, 500 there.”