Spiraling economy eases worker woes, HR officials agree

Russell Bruce
September 22, 2009
Zenobia Barrow
September 24, 2009
Russell Bruce
September 22, 2009
Zenobia Barrow
September 24, 2009

For the past several years, finding enough skilled workers to fill much needed positions has been a major problem for the oil and gas industry.

But with layoffs and the national economic downturn starting to be felt locally, getting employees has not been as difficult recently, according to industry officials and labor contractors.

“It went from an extreme challenge in mid-2008 to relatively straight forward this year as other companies have cutback on their workforce,” said Martin Ferron, CEO of Houma-based Chet Morrison Contractors.

“The availability of skilled labor goes up and down with oil and gas prices. That’s part of the cycle,” he added.

However, energy companies are not completely out of the woods.

A substantial portion of oilfield and offshore workers are nearing retirement age, and the industry is expecting an exodus of their most experienced workers over the next few years.

“It’s an issue that faces the whole industry,” Ferron said. “A lot of young people over the years have been deterred from joining (the oil and gas industry) because of the boom-bust nature of the business.”

Employers are doing their best to hold on to their most experienced people in hopes that they will be around when the market bounces back.

Tony Boudreaux, president of the South Central Industrial Association (SCIA) said his member businesses have been heavily involved with the technical community colleges high schools to introduce students to career options.

“Retirement is definitely a challenge we will be facing,” he noted. “An aging workforce makes up a large portion of these companies’ core employee group.”

Contract labor companies, which have been vital to providing workers to the petroleum industry, as seen a tighter market than it has in several years.

“The market has softened. There are not quite as many opportunities available as there was this time last year,” said Boudreaux, who is also vice president of Superior Labor Services Inc. in Houma and Morgan City.

“Even with contract workers, companies are doing what they can to hold on to them,” he continued.

While the field may not be as wide open, there are still positions that need to be filled.

On the blue-collar side, certified welders, electricians, diesel mechanics, pipe fitters, ship fitters, and marine diesel engine technicians are still in short supply.

On the white-collar side, engineers and geologists are every bit as hard to come by.

To help plug the anticipated gap, L.E. Fletcher Technical Community College hopes to offer a 15-course, two-year integrated production technology program specially designed to train workers in deepwater petroleum exploration and production. Recipients would receive an associate’s degree of applied science.

While the Louisiana Community & Technical College System has approved the new program, the state Board of Regents will make a final determination by year’s end.

“We’re launching a new advertising campaign – 60K, Just Two Years Away,” said Fletcher Chancellor Travis Lavigne.

“There is a concerted effort among the major oil and gas companies that are working with Fletcher and Nicholls to increase our (educational) offerings and attract additional individuals to the field,” he continued. “It takes a couple of years for an individual to get the skills to work safely in the Gulf.”

While the job market may currently be tighter, those in the know expect it to rebound sooner rather than later.

BP’s new giant oil discovery, the Tiber Prospect in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, will not come online for a couple of years, but should provide new jobs in the meantime in preparation work.

“I hope and anticipate some slight growth in the near future,” Boudreaux said. “With the price of oil staying where it is and the price of natural gas bumping up a little bit, we’re going to see more activity.

“You have to plan not for what’s happening now, but for what’s going to happen six months, 18 months, even two or three years out,” Lavigne said.