SEMPCheck Services Inc.

For quite a few years we’ve heard that one of the biggest issues facing the oil industry is “The Big Crew Change” as baby boomers make the transition to retirement. Much of this has been exacerbated by the typical boom and bust cycle which significantly reduced the number of mid-career people in the industry. When you look at charts and graphs there’s no denying that it’s starting to happen, but there are some disturbing things going on regarding the solutions to the big crew change.

One trend is that many oil companies are hiring new grads from various engineering schools with the attitude that they’ll be trained to manage drilling or completions activities in a company preferred manner as site managers. Often these new grads have only seen videos of a working drill rig, and have never actually set foot on a working location before they are responsible for operations. While there’s no denying that these are some pretty sharp individuals, the lack of experience is setting the industry up for a new set of problems. Too often these new grads spend a very short amount of time with an experienced mentor before they are expected to perform on their own.

While most are eminently qualified to fill out a Wellview report, or speak about the engineering issues regarding well design, I’ve seen some nearly disastrous results when it comes to well control issues. Many simply lack the maturity to properly manage four rotating crews, rotating sets of rig managers, directional drillers, casing and cement crews, and every other third-party vendor necessary to complete a well- let alone the mechanical functions of a rig. Few are very adept at relating to the roughneck mentality. Almost none have the experience to recognize and prevent hole problems, stuck pipe and other issues. This lack of experience extends all the way up to many office-based support personnel.

Another trend in the industry is that specific certifications are being required for certain positions. While certifications are certainly a move in a positive direction, they are not necessarily producing desirable results. For example a “qualified” safety hand has to have attended a certified program and carry certain certificates. Once again, many of these credentialed people have never seen an operating drill rig prior to their first job, yet they are expected to perform vital safety functions to keep crews safe.

In my personal experience over the last 10 years, better than 90% of the new safety hands I’ve dealt with have only gotten classroom experience when they show up on location. None have been versed in the chain of command on a rig, few can locate a company man or rig manager, let alone understand the difference between a driller and a floorhand. A high percentage of those have been so intimidated by rig operations, that they’ll seldom leave their shack to do a walk around inspection; many never set foot on the floor. Even worse is when they see an infraction, such as failure to tie off with fall protection, they’re afraid to confront the offender.

Another area with similar problems is environmental compliance. Qualifications for environmental positions typically require a college degree in environmental sciences, biology, or other related sciences. Once again, most of the people hired for these positions have never seen a working drill rig. When they first set foot on location, their immediate reaction is that everything is a violation.

Virtually every new hire environmental compliance officer I’ve met has written my rigs up for rainwater on containment (with no oil sheen). One wrote me up for a shovel full of cuttings on a matting board on containment, and another wrote me up for rusty rainwater inside cuttings disposal containers. One environmental officer even called a hazmat team for a ten gallon fresh water spill from a potable water truck. Imagine what all the homeowners around our rig thought when they saw the flashing lights and a full-blown hazmat response.

Not that long ago most of the people who filled these positions in health, safety and the environment were people who had hands-on experience on rigs. If someone has worked on a rig for any amount of time, they’ve attended a number of Rig Pass type classes, covering topics such as confined space, H2S, fall protection, and have extensive training on other safety and environmental topics. These courses combined with actual experience do not qualify a person as certified for health, safety or environmental positions. While many of the worms (forgive the old-school terminology) in these positions will eventually end up making good hands, they have very limited guidance to help them get there and too many wash out before they have the opportunity to develop professionally.

Almost universally, HR departments throughout the industry only accept applications for employment by way of the Internet. While in many respects this makes applying for jobs convenient, technology has relieved HR of the tedious task of actually reading each and every cover letter, resume and application that comes through the door. Instead, the trend is to rely on keyword searches to find the appropriate match for open positions.

To be fair, HR departments can be inundated with hundreds of applications for a single position, so the use of technology to cut through the clutter is understandable. The worst impact of the trend towards keyword searches is that too many highly qualified people are automatically eliminated because they don’t have a specific credential even though they may have extensive experience or don’t have the ability to match their resume to the keywords. If the keywords used are too narrow in scope, great people are being missed and inexperienced people with the right keywords are being hired.

Too long I’ve heard the complaint that companies can’t find enough qualified people, and this is typically blamed on the Big Crew Change. The fact is that too many of the guys who worked from the ground to the crown, have run safe operations with 100% environmental and regulatory compliance, the very guys who actually pioneered all of these things, are being overlooked and dismissed by keyword searches. The net result is that experience is being lost in the last 5 to 15 years of many of these people’s working lives while inexperienced people are tasked with responsibilities they aren’t qualified to manage.

During my time in the patch I’ve worked in 15 different basins in 16 different states. In the last five years I’ve run into more engineers and drill site managers who’ve only had experience in one basin and think that the problems they face have never been seen before. To a man, the ones who have had to come up quickly with no mentor or limited guidance refuse to listen to experienced people. One team of engineers even scoffed when I explained that a filtrate of 14 they spec’d was causing all of their hole problems. A recital of anecdotal accounts won’t do anything to solve the immediate problems.

So what is the solution to the problem of finding qualified people? For one answer, I’m borrowing a line from Monty Python’s “The Holy Grail.” I’m not dead yet. Neither are a lot of highly qualified, experienced people with another 5 to 15 years left in their working lives.

HR departments need to take a critical look at their methodology in screening available candidates. Since the bust of 2008 and now the bust of 2015, I can’t count the number of applications I’ve submitted for jobs that I am absolutely qualified for only to receive a form email stating that I’m not qualified for the position. From talking to a lot of other old-timers, I know I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to dozens of highly experienced people who face the same problem and cannot land any position. Most of us aren’t even getting a chance to interview.

HR departments must adjust their screening processes to be sure that they’re not screening out too many of the qualified candidates who apply. Actual experience has to be weighted appropriately against certifications. HR departments should not automatically reject a highly experienced person applying for a mid-level job presuming that the position is beneath the dignity of the applicant. Most of us applying for those jobs do so on purpose, often to utilize our talents in a lower stress setting. Many of us would love nothing more than spending the remaining years of our career sharing our experience and training the new generation to safely and efficiently continue the proud tradition of the oilfield.

Too often screening and hiring practices are excluding the very people who can assist in making a smooth transition in the Big Crew Change.


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