The past year or so has brought some stunning changes to the drilling industry. Oil reached a high that nobody thought possible, followed by a low that shocked everyone and which is still hard to believe. Since there are so many factors that dictate oil prices, I will not attempt to explain them here. It would take a 14-part article to say the limited things that I see and understand.
What I see, and live, is the effect on people. My co-workers, my associates, my friends on social media and me, have all been affected by the changes in the drilling industry. After 50 years in the industry, I have seen this before, and prepared for it, but many aren’t. Our grandparents tell us stories of the depression, how everybody was poor and life was a struggle. It is the same for the young oilfield hands today. They struggle to pay their mortgage, take care of the kids, look for work, etc. The expensive toys are mostly gone now, at fire sale prices. Divorce rates are very high. Unfortunately, those cute little trophy wives didn’t like the pay cut. There are reports that the suicide rate is approaching the rate for ex-military in some parts of the world.
There is a way through this dark period. The skills that it takes to be a good hand, get promoted and make a good living are translatable to many other industries. I have watched a lot of good hands get laid off when their rig was stacked, and the process is pretty similar in a lot of folks. First, they go home with their last paycheck and relax with their family for a week or so, figuring that, “Oh Well, I’ll just get another job.” After the party, and no job offers, they resignedly sign up for unemployment, which isn’t nearly the same money, but it will hold them for a while. As the unemployment insurance starts to dwindle and reality creeps in, the job search intensifies. Resumes are sent to everyone that still has iron in the field. And some that don’t. Trust me: Don’t send your resume to a Nigerian prince.
Next comes selling the toys. When everybody was awash in money, bass boats, four wheelers, fancy pickups and, if he was single, several new girlfriends, were the norm. Lots of new guns were in there, too. I’ve never met a hand in the field that wasn’t armed with the best. Unfortunately, when times get tight, these things have to go. Usually at whatever the pay-off amount is. A person with some cash can get a good deal on all sorts of stuff nowadays, if you look around.
At some point, people will start looking outside the industry. There are many jobs they are qualified for, but when it gets to the money, a lot of hands say, “No way I’m working for that; I used to make a lot more.” This is true until you figure out that part of something is better than all of nothing. When the cable gets shut off and your insurance is canceled, and your kids need new shoes, reality sets in.
My point is that we all have a lot of translatable skills. Many hands I know are now over-the-road truck drivers and making a decent living. They don’t need much supervision, and their family is used to them being away, so it’s a good fit. A good driller can transition to an excellent crane operator pretty quickly, and he doesn’t have to worry about a blowout. Iron workers. Same as rigging up and working on the iron. There are many things we can do that are not on the rig, it’s just a matter of doing them. Another translatable skill is drilling. The big, municipal water well drillers are doing pretty well, and always looking for hands. The money isn’t the same, and the technology is about 40 years behind the oilfield, but the work is there. That way we can feed our families.
So far, I have concentrated on the oilfield side of this, but the same situation applies to water well drillers in some areas. I know quite a few drillers that happened to be located in booming oilfields. They had a field day drilling water supply wells for the rigs, and then drilling multiple wells for fracking operations. Bought more rigs. Hired more hands. What could go wrong? Those rigs, like their big brothers, are now sitting. Waiting for the phone to ring. Sorry, it’s not gonna happen soon, and that formerly friendly banker down the street now wants his money. Most of this work is location specific. There are droughts in some areas, and a glut of drillers in others. Sometimes, a move is in order.
Bottom line: A person that has spent his life in this business can always find a way to make a living. It’s part of our skillset. Hey, I’d go be a Walmart greeter to feed Lottie, but you better believe that when the call comes in from the rig, I will sack my clothes and walk.
For more Wayne Nash columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/wayne.