Boom or bust: students grapple with job security uncertainty in oil industry

Glenn

Wesley Glenn is a master's student at OSU studying mechanical engineering.

His job was over before it began.

Like most high school seniors, Wesley Glenn had no idea what he wanted to study in college.

A booth at a Jenks High School career fair piqued Glenn's interest in the oil industry. He couldn’t remember the name of the man who told him about production graphs and fracturing, but he remembered the man was excited about his job. That’s what Glenn wanted. He set out to the University of Oklahoma to earn his bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering.

During his senior year, Glenn accepted a job offer from a Tulsa-based oil consulting company. Everything looked as if it would turn out, but that was before OPEC flooded the market with oil.

Glenn said his future employer first called to tell him his start date had been pushed back two months, from May to August, to ride out the repercussions of the crash. During the second call, less than a month before Glenn's graduation, his job offer was revoked.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Glenn said. “I had no options at that point.”

Glenn said on-campus interviews with prospective companies had finished.

“No one was hiring for petroleum anymore, anyway,” Glenn said.

His then girlfriend had moved to Tulsa for him, but he was suddenly without a job.

Disappointed in his luck and not knowing where to turn, Glenn decided to pursue a master's degree at Oklahoma State University in mechanical engineering, a field he said he considers “safer” than oil.

The oil market is infamous for its booms and busts.

The most recent bust began in 2014, when the price of oil per barrel dropped from $109.25 in June to $29.49 in January 2015, according to a MacroTrends chart adjusted for inflation. Hundreds of thousands of workers were laid off in the following couple of years. Many companies struggled to keep their heads above water.

Despite the industry’s volatility, industry hopefuls' dreams have not been completely crushed. About 45 percent of millennials in America said jobs in the oil and gas industry are appealing to them, according to an EY study released in June. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment in the oil and gas extraction industry will grow 10.9 percent, or about 21,500 jobs, before 2024.

Glenn, 25, graduates in December with his master's degree in mechanical engineering and is searching for a job again.

Glenn said the crash’s toll on Oklahoma oil companies is visible. He went to an OU career fair a couple of weeks ago and estimated there were 20 fewer oil companies than in past years.

Glenn’s observations reflect the downward trend in oil companies’ outreach to young people. In an EY survey of 109 oil and gas executives in the U.S., 56 percent thought their respective companies did a fair or poor job attracting young people to work in the industry, opposed to 44 percent who thought they did an excellent or good job.

Although most people surveyed thought their companies did a poor job attracting young people, industry professionals don’t discourage students from pursuing a career in the field.

Jason Hamilton, president of Cornerstone Petroleum Corporation, has worked in the oil industry about 40 years. He said he was fortunate to have entered the industry when he did.

“I call them the ‘doo-da days,’ or ‘the boom’ is what everyone else says,” Hamilton said. “Everything is different now. Getting into the oil business when I was (younger) was like getting on at the very top of a rollercoaster. It was a wild ride. There’s been such a contraction now. Only the few and proud of us remain.”

An OSU alumnus, Hamilton earned his bachelor's degree in geology in 1984 and his master's degree in petroleum engineering in 1990. He has worked for companies large and small and works in Oklahoma City doing independent consulting for drilling companies.

Hamilton has been on the advisory council for OSU’s Boone Pickens School of Geology for 11 years. He said the council searches for potential professors, builds class curriculum and works to improve the school’s professional development of students.

Hamilton recognizes the oil market could be better, but he doesn’t discourage students from entering the field.

“The industry’s not great, but it’s OK,” Hamilton said. “Students shouldn’t be worried or scared or anything like that. I mean, I know it’s gone from having 20,000 jobs in oil to 10,000 jobs, but, the way I think, I only need one of those 10,000 jobs.

“You can’t use a fishing pole with just one line and hope you get a fish. You gotta get a trot line with 50 hooks. Sit down and call every single person you know if you want to get that job.”

The apparent downturn in the industry hasn’t discouraged all students.

Michael Tantillo, president of the OSU Society of Petroleum Engineers, will graduate in December with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in petroleum engineering.

Tantillo said he chose to major in mechanical engineering because the field is broad, but he wasn’t sure whether he would enjoy being a mechanical engineer. He tried a petroleum engineering course his second semester and loved it, so he picked up the minor and was determined to work in the oil industry, he said.

Tantillo said he and his peers are aware of the rollercoaster ride on which they’re about to embark, but that won’t dissuade them from continuing.

"If we’re here, we want to be learning it,” Tantillo said.

Tantillo accepted a job, which he will start after graduation, at an OKC-based oil and natural gas company. He said concerns about job security are common in every industry, but he often hears about the uncertainty of oil industry job security.

“Job security is something that everyone will always worry about, and it’s always something that I’ll be worrying about within the industry,” Tantillo said. “When oil’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad, it’s really bad, but I think if you can establish yourself in the company as a leader or superior employee, then job security will follow.”

Tantillo said Glenn wasn’t alone in losing his job before it started and heading back to school to earn a higher degree. He said students who went back to school during the bust are graduating now with higher degrees, making the job market more competitive.

Hamilton said perseverance is key when searching for a job in the oil industry is difficult.

“Call 10 people every day,” he said. “When you feel defeated, pull your boot straps up and hit the streets running.

“You gotta have the desire to work in this industry, because I can tell you this right now, no one is gonna call you and offer you a job. You have to go get them. But they’re there.”

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