Bringing Back Our People: Industry Combats Workforce Challenges

Bringing Back Our People: Industry Combats Workforce Challenges
Industry professionals and educators share insight on how to ramp up the oil and gas workforce despite current challenges.

The oil and gas industry has seen a slew of changes the past few years. From oil price uncertainty to technological advances, it’s fair to say the oilfield of 2017 and beyond will look far different from the oilfield of the past. But in all changes lie opportunities and challenges. A panel of industry professionals and educators convened recently to discuss how to bring back the oil and gas workforce. It’s clear there’s a lot of work to do.

Workforce Challenges in Downturn’s Aftermath

Lingering effects of the industry’s downturn are still wreaking havoc on the oil and gas workforce. A recent study by the University of Houston (UH) shed light on the potential HR nightmare – laid off workers who may never return to the industry.

The study, which surveyed more than 700 adults who lost jobs in oil and gas within the past two years, found that 62 percent of respondents were still unemployed at the time of the survey. Additionally, only 13 percent of respondents who had been reemployed were in oil and gas.

“Will those workers come back? Maybe, but there’s absolutely some evidence that we have damaged the workforce and we may not get a lot of those folks back,” Bob Newhouse, president of Newhouse Consultants and former vice president of learning and development for Noble Corporation, said during the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) Health, Safety, Environment and Training Conference Feb. 7-8 in Houston. 

Newhouse, who was a principal in the UH study, also pointed out some troubling labor statistics.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a massive decline in the labor force participation rate began in about 2000, said Newhouse. So while the unemployment rate is going down, there are fewer people in the workforce.

“Another negative trend we’re seeing is women leaving the workforce,” he said. “That’s attributed generally to higher education attainment. More people are staying in school longer, which is good for educators, but it’s bad for the workforce, so there’s a push-pull.”    

Necessary Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

Oil and gas companies will need to focus on talent attraction as the industry recovers and job opportunities are created again. But this isn’t the oilfield of the 80s. Technologies have advanced and the workforce will need to be skilled enough to handle the changes.

Newhouse, who first worked offshore in 1982, said when he came to Noble Drilling in 2007, the rigs were pretty standard.

“None of the guys on the rig needed to know anything about computers, software, integrated systems, PLCs, cyber-based systems, data analysis, troubleshooting, VPN, cybersecurity…” Newhouse said.

Times have changed.

In the old days of the oilfield, the saying used to be ‘strong back, weak mind’ but today it’s ‘strong mind’ and nobody really cares about your back because you’re going to be sitting in a cyber chair controlling equipment through digitized controls, said Newhouse.   

The real challenge comes into play when companies prepare to hire workers for the oilfield.

“Are we asking for the right skillsets from people – those who can dig into data and look for trends … are we demanding these skills coming in?” Newhouse said. “I think we’ve got a long way to go. What’s fascinating now is that data comes from everywhere. Just about every piece of equipment that is designed now will give you data on its performance and status … we’re flooded with data and starving for knowledge. We’ve got too much information and not enough knowledge.”

To ensure companies are hiring employees with the right Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSA), Newhouse suggests IT personnel be at the table right alongside rig managers during the hiring process.

“That’s how you develop the rig manager of the future,” he said.

Getting the Right People in the Right Positions

Some companies were strategic in managing their workforce during the downturn. For example, Noble Drilling was able to keep key employees – insulating them from layoffs in a sense – by moving them to different roles within the company.

“We’ve had people who are great drillers and had to tell them, ‘we don’t have a job for you right now, but if you’ll stay on as a derrickman, when we have a job, we’ll pull you back up,’” Angela Murphy, manager-program curriculum for Noble Drilling, told attendees of the conference.

Similarly, onshore drilling superintendents were sent offshore to be OIMs (offshore installation managers) and a mechanic transitioned to a roustabout position.

As the industry recovers and Noble looks to move workers back to their positions, the company is tasked with making sure workers are competent enough to resume their previous jobs. That’s where Noble’s new hire program got a makeover.

It used to be 18 days, but after determining what could be cut from the program, the time was cut to about five days for employees who were gone from the company for more than one year. Different criteria for the program depends on if employees were at a different company or outside of the industry altogether.   

If new hires have been in their position for two to six months, they are required to wear a green hat. Other workers are able to easily identify them and are encouraged to help them out.

“It’s an easy way for us to identify where they’re at in the process and through on-the-job training, we walk them through anything they’ll need to know before moving to a blue hat position,” Murphy said. “The decision to move a new hire from a green hat to a blue hat position relies heavily on the rig. We are trying to empower the rig to own its own competency programs.”

Dallas Bozeman, performance manager for Deepwater Subsea LLC, shared with conference attendees how to identify informal leaders within your organization. Bozeman, a military veteran who spent time stationed in Afghanistan, said the first step is engaging informal leaders.

“How many of you know that guy on the rig who doesn’t hold a title, but everybody respects him?” he said. “Those are the people you have to get on board. Your informal leaders are your key to success.”

Informal leaders are workers who have great personalities and trusted by other workers.

“You have to let them know as an organization, you see those qualities in them; otherwise another organization will let them know and steal them from you,” Bozeman said.  

Informal leaders should be brought into the fold and told they’ve been identified as somebody in the organization who can make a change, he said.

“Be transparent about your vision. If you let them know what’s at stake for the organization and why it’s beneficial to them and their coworkers – make it about the team – they’ll typically get on board because people in informal leadership roles really care about people,” Bozeman said. “If you can leverage that need and desire for them to assist other people, you can bring them into the mix, help develop their soft skills and move them into leadership positions.”

Attracting Gen Z

While millennials have been the constant talk of the next generation of oil and gas workers, the generation following them (commonly referred to as Gen Z or iGen and born in 1998 and later) will soon enter the workforce … and some may not be entering the oilfield.

“This is the generation who grew up with an iPhone in their crib … who never knew the world without the Internet,” said Newhouse. “How are we going to ask these kids to go work for 28 days in a remote oilfield and not be connected for 24 hours a day? That’s a real challenge.”

The value proposition for this group of workers has to include technology, flexible working options and green energy, Newhouse said.

And the approach may need to change, too.

“My 13-year-old and my 11-year-old are both being recruited now by professional gaming groups, but my kids have never once seen a Shell or BP commercial on TV because they don’t watch TV. They watch YouTube,” said Murphy. “We have to change our strategy a little bit if we want to attract these young men and women into our industry.”

Linda Head, associate vice chancellor of Lone Star College which serves the Greater Houston area, worked with other community colleges to start the IADC Gateway Program – in which potential candidates are recruited and screened for entry-level rig positions and prepared for employment in the oil and gas industry.

The program prepares participants for the realities of oil and gas work.

Head said about 15 people in the first class were hired by a Houston-based drilling company and within two weeks, 12 of them had quit.

“They got out there on the land rig in West Texas and North Dakota and it was cold … or they were told they had to work a 10- or 12-hour shift … or they were yelled at by their supervisor … or one of them was covered in oil-based mud and they weren’t allowed to change their clothes,” she said. “Part of what we’re trying to do as a college is educate them with behavior skills and that includes getting to know the realities of the job.”

And it’s imperative they have the right attitude.

“Even if they complete the program, but we know their attitude isn’t up to par, we’re not going to send them to [oil and gas companies] for interviews,” Head said. “Included in coursework is understanding of the industry, business principles, etc. We’re training people for a career path, not just a job. And that’s part of having a career. You have to exhibit the right attitude.”

Murphy shared a story in which one individual in a new hire class at Noble had “a bad taste in their mouth about oil and gas.”

“Ultimately, we had to pull him to the side and explain that if he wanted to join our team and be a part of our culture, that’s great, we’d love to have him,” she said. “But, if not, there’s a lot of people who are going to be knocking at the door waiting on your paycheck. We have to be clear on the fact that you can’t bring your grudge with you. It’s great to have instructors who are willing to use their stopping authority, because sometimes you’re not just stopping dangerous physical work, you’re stopping culturally dangerous work.” 


Generated by readers, the comments included herein do not reflect the views and opinions of Rigzone. All comments are subject to editorial review. Off-topic, inappropriate or insulting comments will be removed.

Philippe  |  March 05, 2017
It is a given that what took 10 people 20 years ago today takes a single employee and no travel. 20 years ago I travelled from LA to Algeria to have a look at the oil production facilities in Hassi Mesaoud. While I was gone, I had to call the home office, my boss, every day to report the progress. In Algeria I had a driver and a local employee to direct me. I stayed at a camp with all the support personnel. The travel was done through a travel agency. It took several weeks to set up the production and the reservoir management. Today, a $10 sensor installs on the production equipment and incorporated on an internet web site is all you need. I could, today, monitor from LA the production of all the wells 24/7. I could remotely manage the valves at will 24/7 thousands of miles away. What all this mean is that the level of qualification is totally different, the management team is down to a manager an engineer, an IT engineer in LA and 1 at the local production responsible for 12em of sensors etc.. The cost of management is the 10th of what it was 20 years ago. The competition for a job is fears; the level of education becomes the selection. The salary is perhaps higher for the newly hired, but overall the total level of salaries is less. We are in 2017, today by moving the production management from LA to a safe industrial such as Ireland among many. The cost of managing the production can be less. Taxes become the compelling factor.
JAMES  |  February 22, 2017
Dave Stewart  |  February 22, 2017
One way to put our engineering folks back to work is to STOP USING LOW COST CENTERS in 3rd world countries! Thats all I have to say about that. Forest Gump
Lars Bergmark  |  February 19, 2017
I worked offshore for 8 years until I got laid off in June 2016. Last 5 years on a deepwater rig. After been unemployed now for 6 months I have finally got a new work but in a non oil/ gas industry. So I guess my career in offshore is over. However I dont see any reason to go back to deepwater or offshore either as a high oilprice is political generated and not geological. Question is also if the demand for oil and gas will be high in the future when the energy sector is steering away from fossile-energy due to climate change. There will off-course always be a certain demand but enough for deepwater oilfields? I dont think so in a geological aspect. So why should all the laid off people come back to an industry that they cannot depend on more than a couple off years ahead?
james  |  February 18, 2017
I was a driller and had worked in the industry for over a decade. I was not the very best but i was damned good at my job. Im out of the oilfield and really not looking to go back if i can help it. Im tired of being treated like meat because they pay well. All of the stress, all of the safety rules that they just keep shoving down our throats, all of the corporate junk that they keep sending down the ladder is more than overwhelming. The job does not pay enough to make it worth it. not at all. I hope that oil hits 100$ a bbl again. I hope that all these drilling/energy companies lose millions to mistakes and wormy drillers. It only takes one inexperienced driller to make a huge mistake and cost millions. if youre new looking to go roughnecking id say DO NOT!! The drilling companies are desperate for good drillers so they will be promoting people without the experience or focus and that person could get you KILLED!!!! REALLY.
James Drouin  |  February 17, 2017
Bringing Back Our People: Industry Combats Workforce Challenges The only challenge is the pay that is offered.
Keith  |  February 17, 2017
What do they expect !, you dump hundreds of thousands of workers and you expect them to come back into the industry . The old saying if you give out dirt then expect dirt to come back and slap you in the face. Remember a lot of these workers were very experienced and seasoned knowledgeable workers that were close to retirement. So when you paid them off , most of them said thats it I`am done with oil and gas industry so I will take a less stressful job and make do with my pension, e.g. retire early and move overseas to a lower cost of living area. So all you are now left with is fresh faced graduates straight out of university or college who have lost their mentors. And believe me learning starts when you are actually on the job and not in an educational institution, thats another fallacy , they are certified so they are good to go. So to counter the employers ship in thousands of overseas`s workers who are also struggling to do the jobs not being familiar with things. Its a sorry state of affairs but guys in the industry could see it coming , the employers have screwed themselves over and now its payback time.
Bill Richmond  |  February 17, 2017
The problem is that HR departments are using a computer to analyse resumes and those resumes that squeak through cant be understood due to the lack of knowledge of HR personnel to correctly read/interpret a resume. Additionally, HR personnel wont ask questions to clarify information on the resume. I have been told many time that I am not qualified to do jobs I have been doing for over 35 years! I have also had my resume redone 3 times by these so called resume experts without success.
Bob Newhouse  |  February 15, 2017
It was pointed out to me that there were, indeed, PLCs and SCADA systems on rigs in the US GOM in 2007. In my remarks I inadvertently overstated the change in technology from 2007 to present and in no way intended to question the competence of folks in the GOM at the time--I apologize if the comment came across that way. The issue I hoped to illustrate is that our rigs and equipment are becoming increasingly more networked and complex and the industry will need even MORE qualified technicians, ETs, and operators who understand how these systems work--and analysts who can make sense of the massive amount of data streaming off of them. When I went offshore in the US GOM in 1982, we did not have any of the automation and data streaming we see today. Weve made big technology investments and must make equal investments in our people. Thanks to the reader who contacted me with the correction.
Alexander Craig  |  February 15, 2017
I was part of the downturn which started in 2014. I eventually became redundant in May 2015 after almost 34 years in the Oil and Gas Industry. During the early 80s I was still finding my feet and actually enjoyed offshore life........I know some people will laugh but its true I really did embrace the whole experience and valued the time off and the extra money. Over time I drifted from company to company as most folk did......not now theres nowhere to go....and travelled to foreign lands working with a diversity of people. I learned to accept that some things might be different and that it might take 2 days to send a FAX.........Yes folks we sent all our office correspondence by FAX and if the onshore sites were a bit slow then who knows the fax might never go and if it did would the recipient receive it let alone inform you that he had! My latter job in the Industry involved travelling from places like Northern Canada to New Zealand carrying out technical/HSE audits. Part of that process involved conducting interviews with Company men. Some I found very articulate whilst there were a few who really couldnt write to save themselves and relied heavily on Microsoft Word and Spell Check. i had to be patient with these guys as I wanted an end result. Some were down right rude and aggressive whilst others couldnt do enough for me........a strange world. Now that there has been a major downturn resulting in massive job losses I fear the Industry will have to be sharper next time round and ensure those who have a job are better equipped to deal with our modern world.........e.g. use email and digital artefacts to get their reports in and be better educated all round. Many Technical people in the Industry and in fact in other industries too do not know the basic steps of writing a technical report and would struggle to get their points across in a manner whereby someone completely independent would have any idea as to what they were talking about. I dont mean to be derogatory to Technical People, I, too am an engineer and had to write many reports during my working life so I had to take the time out to learn how to do it correctly. However, lets get back on track, when the Industry does eventually start to recruit again who are they going to consider taking on? Will they employ previous employees OR will they dip into the pot and grab anybody who can spell offshore? Lets face it folks, anyone who has been out of the Industry for more than 6 months will be in line for retraining..............has to be to ensure competence. I remember working in a foreign land back in the mid 90s and some of the locals were promoted to senior positions such as driller etc. A lot of these guys worked 2 on 2 off but after 2 weeks at home they could hardly remember their way to the Dog House let alone be able to operate the equipment......thats not an exaggeration either, unfortunately, thats the way it appeared to be at the time. The majors in this Industry will have to dig deep and ensure that those of you (not me, Im semi retired now) who may return to an offshore life are better trained and better equipped physically and mentally to cope with modern day offshore life. Helicopters too will have to be reviewed and more stringent checks put in place to minimise any risk to crews, though any machine with rotating rotor blades can fail at any time, part of the risk factor I guess. Safety will have to be reviewed and not just be a talking point at safety meetings. I guess now safety will have fallen backwards a bit to save money!! This should not be the case it has to roll on regardless of cost. There will be many hurdles to cross and for those of you still active I wish you all the best in a more modern, safer industry.
David Thompson  |  February 15, 2017
This happens every time we have a downturn, the major service companies panic and first, they get rid of the old, experienced consultants (we trained their last class, planted a few seeds) and then they off-load all their new trainees, put their office hands out into the field where they never were in the first place. Then wonder why they have problems. Duh. Theyd be a lot better off keeping all the old farts who know what theyre doing, dont cost any benefits and dont need to be retrained every 3 weeks. My wife is a bean counter and she cant believe how ignorant the oilfield service companies are. All they look at is the day rate and dont realize that all our expenses come out of that

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