TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- Oklahoma producers are so desperate for workers to meet oil demands that one operator has begun to wait outside a prison's gates to offer released inmates a job.
"There's nobody to work," said Dewey Bartlett Jr., president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association.
Workers who were laid off after recent oil busts have found jobs elsewhere with more security. As the oil industry begins to recover, producers can't find the help to drill new exploratory wells to meet increasing demands, Bartlett said.
"After the last industry downturn many people said 'That's it. No more. I'm going to learn a new trade,"' Bartlett said. "They are gone.
"One operator told me that he had become so desperate for experienced employees that he knows when the prison releases the parolees. He stands outside the gate and asks anyone if they want a job," he said.
The number of workers in the state's oil and gas extraction industry has declined since 1997, according to the Oklahoma
Employment Security Commission.
The latest figures show there were 25,381 oil and gas workers in Oklahoma in the third quarter of 1999. The number was down from
30,931 for the same period two years earlier.
The labor shortage couldn't come at a worse time. In order to meet demand, the number of rigs operating in Oklahoma needs to nearly double within the next three years, said Bruce Bell, chairman of the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association of Oklahoma.
"Those people who left are not about to come back to a job that may not be secure," Bell said. "We just may not be able to meet the oil demands we have."
About 3,000 Oklahomans were laid off during declining oil prices in 1997 and 1998, according to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.
Although the oil industry is still recovering from the two-year bust, the rest of the economy soared. The unemployment rate fell,
making it harder for oil producers to fill shaky oil positions.
"The high employment is making it even that much tougher in our industry. They can find other jobs," said Tom Hull, operator of Hull Oil Co. in Osage County.
The wait to drill a new well in Oklahoma has been from one to 12 months. Some producers have been able to afford higher wages to
attract experienced oil workers, but many are left helpless.
"It's pretty tough," Hull said. "You can't find people to run rigs, do service work, drilling or pulling."
There were 92 rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in Oklahoma this week compared to 54 rigs for the same time one year
Hull said the federal government needs to establish policy that will secure the roller-coaster industry to get workers back in the oil fields. Bartlett and Bell agreed that nothing was done on how to return experienced workers.
"Crews are working around the clock in many cases," Bell said. "It's unclear what kind of limiting force this lack of labor will have but it's very real."
On the Net: Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission:http://www.iogcc.state.ok.us