Experience helps during boom, not bust, worker says

Rye Druzin By Rye Druzin

Feb. 14, 2016 at midnight
Updated Feb. 13, 2016 at 6 a.m.

Juan Estrada, 63, who is originally from Laredo,  lives on 22 acres north of Goliad. He was working as a company man for Lewis Energy making $150,000 a year. In January 2015, Lewis demoted Estrada to tool pusher. The move cut Estrada's pay but allowed the company to keep him for another eight months. He was laid off  Aug. 11. Estrada does not have a high school diploma. After 43 years in the oil field, he has few other options for work.

Juan Estrada, 63, who is originally from Laredo, lives on 22 acres north of Goliad. He was working as a company man for Lewis Energy making $150,000 a year. In January 2015, Lewis demoted Estrada to tool pusher. The move cut Estrada's pay but allowed the company to keep him for another eight months. He was laid off Aug. 11. Estrada does not have a high school diploma. After 43 years in the oil field, he has few other options for work.   Jaime R. Carrero for The Victoria Advocate

Juan Estrada never graduated from high school, but despite that, he joined the oil industry when he was 21 and never looked back.

Now 63, Estrada stood in the shade of an old oak tree on his 22 acres north of Goliad, where he and his wife are converting their garage into a home.

But after 42 years in the oil field, Estrada is without work and is struggling to find a new job to make ends meet.

"We're barely making it," Estrada said. "You know, I had a lot of bills, and when my rig went into the yard, then we started taking care of those little bills we had. . We still have a few dollars left but not like we used to; going out every day and all that stuff."

Estrada is one of thousands of oil field workers who entered the industry either without a high school diploma or right out of high school. Of the more than 100,000 workers that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says work in the oil industry, more than 63 percent have a high school education or less.

That lack of education has allowed many of them to gain experience - and money - in an industry where experience is highly valued.

With the oil industry in financial turmoil as crude sits below $30 a barrel, many laid off oil workers are finding it hard to find a job as education requirements ramp up for the few positions that remain.

Experience, not schooling, needed

When Estrada entered the oil field, he was struggling to finish high school, and was driving a school bus to make money.

The industry offered a much more lucrative job and took him in.

"I didn't have that much schooling and everything like that," he said. "I was making real good money in the oil field because I had everything memorized."

It is the experience Estrada gained during the years that allowed him to command a $150,000 a year salary as a company man for San Antonio-based Lewis Energy.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that oil field derrick, rotary drill and service unit operators in oil, gas and mining man an annual mean wage of $53,760. Derrick operators in oil and gas make slightly less a year at $51,090.

For job types with similar education levels, the type of pay varies widely. Counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession and coffee shop workers make an annual mean wage of $19,280, compared to rail-track laying and maintenance equipment operator's $50,740.

The difference in pay is related to the type of work, especially in the oil industry, said Mia Edwards, the senior human resources generalist for APS Personnel Services.

"A lot of times these positions are working 15-20 days in a row, long hours, before they're ever relieved," she said. "Most of the time it's a long way from home. They have to travel and maybe live on site in a little trailer or something."

Those living and working conditions are part of the reason those jobs command higher pay, Edwards added. For some oil companies, a potential employee's experience may trump their level of schooling.

"There's always lots of folks who are lining up for those types of positions when we have them," Edwards said. "There's also the fact that education level is not as important as having some kind of mechanical ability and skill level in that position."

Experience a blessing - and a hindrance

Many oil workers contacted for this report have decades of experience under their belt - but not a job in sight.

Some said other jobs will not hire them because of their oil field history and the belief that they will return to oil when it picks back up.

Right now, Estrada said his experience is not making up for the education that he lacks.

"I could drill you any kind of hole you want, but I don't have any schooling," he said. "I never did graduate or anything. That's what's hard. Now I'm 63, and it makes it worse."

His working salary allowed him to purchase the 22 acres 16 years ago, but when he was let go by Patterson UTI, he withdrew his 401K funds to pay off his land.

After being laid off by Lewis Energy, Estrada pulled the 401K money accrued with Lewis to pay off his truck.

Now he and his wife are living on a $1,900 month unemployment check, and he is planning to try to live on his Social Security - which he is dipping into early.

Estrada is not jobless for lack of trying. He even obtained his passport and planned to work abroad. But the downturn increased the competition over the remaining positions.

"Everything went belly up," he said. "They started slowing down over there, and they wanted more qualified people, and I wasn't ready."

Despite the high pay that he received, Estrada said he dissuaded his son - now a U.S. Customs agent - from staying in the industry.

"There's no future. There's no retirement," he said. "I worked 45 years in the oil field. he's going to work 20 years for the U.S. Customs, and in 20 years he'll be able to retire."

But the lure of oil field money is something that he said he - along with many others - cannot resist.

"It's so easy to make it," he said. "It's real hard work, but you always get two, three extra days where it's real easy. Nobody else is going to pay you that money. The oil field is going to give you the money. If I would've been a little smarter, I would've saved a little more money, but I wanted to have this land."

Now he's waiting for a call from his former employer, who he hopes will bring him back on - if and when the industry picks up.

"I tell my wife I'll go (back into oil) on a New York dime," Estrada said. "I like the oil field. That's all I know how to do. I never have done anything else but just drill."


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