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Energy burns bright as Houston job generator

By L.M. Sixel

Energy burns bright as Houston job generator
  • May 20, 2001

A year ago, many employers were tearing their hair out trying to recruit top students. They just didn't measure up to the prosperous and exciting world of dot-coms.

To counter the lure of stock options, they had to boost their salaries into the stratosphere and jack up their signing bonuses.

But that all changed as the dot-coms fizzled and the venture capital money evaporated. Suddenly there's a hot new place to work: energy.

"Energy has become last year's IPO," said Stephen Newton, managing director of Russell Reynolds Associates, an executive recruiting firm in Houston.

Enron, Dynegy and El Paso are moving into novel areas such as telecommunications. Their trading areas are sophisticated and the cultures are entrepreneurial, he said.

"This is not your father's oil company," Newton said.

There are still plenty of oil and gas firms that are like your father's oil company, but they've been looking a lot more prosperous of late.

With the high-tech world hurting, oil company shares have been leaping like the dot-com stocks a couple of years back.

And energy companies are out recruiting hard, because there are a lot of vacancies to fill.

Companies are scrambling for geologists, geophysicists, electrical engineers and even accountants to book all that extra cash flow.

Apache Corp., for example, is searching far and wide for accountants to keep up with a business that doubled in size last year after a run of big acquisitions.

Accountants play a critical role in dealing with drilling-associated costs, as well as counting the new revenue, said Jeff Bender, vice president of human resources. Each producing well comes with a crowd of people and governments to pay.

Anadarko Petroleum Corp. has about 250 openings, including several dozen slots for geologists, petroleum engineers and geophysicists -- the core of the exploration and production business -- not to mention accountants.

The demand is so strong that, in one case, it even eliminated the ritual of layoffs following one takeover. When Anadarko acquired Union Pacific Resources Group of Fort Worth last summer, it offered jobs to all 800 employees of Union Pacific.

The company now has 3,600 to 3,700 employees, including an extra 665 that were added since the Union Pacific acquisition last summer, said Richard A. Lewis, vice president of human resources for Anadarko, the world's largest independent oil and gas company.

Highly skilled blue-collar workers are also in great demand to get the oil and gas out of the earth.

Mike Kneale, vice president of GreyStar Corp., said he is constantly looking for production operators, mechanics and instrument technicians to man the producing platforms it runs for oil and gas producers.

It doesn't hurt the company's recruiting efforts that employees can make a pile of money because of the unusual schedules offered by these round-the-clock operations. Employees typically work one week on and one week off.

On the weeks they work, they toil seven days a week, 12 hours a day. After working 40 hours, they're earning time and a half, which adds up when the hourly wage ranges from $10 to $20.

Several employees run their own businesses on their off weeks. One has become a successful dog breeder, and another sells Cajun spice mixtures.

All that demand for workers in the energy industry has put employees in the driver's seat.

At Texaco, which is bracing for cutbacks after it merges with Chevron later this year, employees don't seem to be too nervous about finding new jobs.

An employee in Texaco's finance section seemed surprised that he was even asked by a reporter whether he was feeling confident. With the way the industry is going, it should be easy to find another job, he said, asking not to be identified.

But those jobs aren't likely to come from the big integrated oil companies such as Shell or Exxon Mobil.

Instead, they're more likely to come from oil service companies and engineering firms, said Bruce Lessey, managing consultant of outplacement company Drake Beam Morin.

"Just a year ago, if you were a petroleum engineer, you were here until your outplacement program ended," Lessey said. For most of the engineers, that meant 12 weeks because there was a glut of engineers. But that oversupply seems to have disappeared.

Beginning in mid-January, Lessey started seeing a pickup. Now companies are snapping up petroleum engineers as soon as they become available.

Jacobs Engineering, a midsize engineering company across the street from Drake Beam's office in west Houston, has been hiring every process engineer who has come through, Lessey said.

For example, when OxyChem laid off a group of six engineers at the end of January, Jacobs Engineering was waiting. While two of the engineers retired, Jacobs quickly offered jobs to the other four, including Gary Geist, a process chemical engineer.

Geist had two job offers within two weeks of getting his pink slip. His fear that he would be treated as over the hill soon passed. His 34 years of experience turned out to be a big plus with companies looking for a wide range of experience.

"It just seemed unbelievable," said Geist, who expected a long spate of unemployment.

Geist has a friend in western New York with matching credentials -- maybe better -- who has been out of work since June.

While workers like Geist are in demand, information technology, or IT, folks are languishing at the outplacement firm.

A year ago, if you were in IT, you stayed long enough to get your résumé printed, Lessey recalled. Now, it's the IT folks who are staying until their program ends.

Clever entrepreneurs have quickly caught on and are reinventing themselves to take advantage of the energy boom.

They're going to the energy industry, said Tony Pannagl, managing partner at IS&T Staffing Group. Many are going back to work as contractors; others are getting jobs as full-time permanent employees -- or as permanent as employees can be these days.

As much demand as there has been for workers, salaries haven't risen much compared with a year ago. The starting figure for engineers is still in the low $50,000s, while financial analysts and traders are starting in the mid- to upper $50,000s, according to Cheryl Matherly, director of career services at Rice University.

The energy industry still has some hurdles to overcome when it's recruiting workers.

For one thing, it doesn't exactly have a dynamic reputation. And it's known for its periodic busts, which are hard on family finances. After an employee has lost a job in the oil patch, it's not so easy to return knowing that a big drop in oil and gas prices is likely to trigger layoffs again.

But that's not to say there aren't pockets of excitement in the world of oil and gas.

Enron is sexy, Matherly said. It's appealing to work there because the company has gone to great lengths to cultivate an entrepreneurial lifestyle.

During the dot-com rush last year, it was kind of funny to watch the staid old companies try to look hip, Matherly said.

Many energy company recruiters adopted the relaxed dress code of the dot-coms -- khakis and polo shirts -- and advertised their great lifestyles.

They were telling the students: "We're so laid-back that every Friday afternoon we have a beer party on our patio," Matherly recalled with a laugh.

But the seriousness that many in the Fortune 500 were trying to avoid is suddenly quite popular. New college graduates, wary of losing their jobs, are increasingly attracted to big companies that can offer some security.

Matherly recounted the tale of a Rice graduate who received a pink slip two months after starting her software development job. She tried to reconnect with a software firm that had previously offered her a job, only to find that company shuttered.

Now, Matherly said, she's looking for a large company.