It’s a challenge ensuring you have enough workers for service rigs: IWS

Hours can be long, and the work at times sporadic, but there is work to be had

Estevan – Making sure you have enough workers can be a challenge when you’re running a service rig company. Tim Huber, Jerry Mehler and Brian Crossman are three of the partners that own and operate Estevan-based Independent Well Servicing. Huber and Crossman spoke to Pipeline News on Oct. 25.

“What work there is, we’re far from being swamped,” Huber said. That being said, he has spoken to a number of other contractors and found, “Everybody is majorly in a bind for finding people.”

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“Good people,” Crossman added.

“And you have a combination of several different reasons for that,” Huber said. “We have 10 rigs. We have crews for six. For the most part, we’ve been running six rigs, but they don’t run every day.”

If they had enough people for seven or eight rigs, could they put them out?

“Sometimes,” Huber replied. “Sometimes we could have seven or more rigs running. But, the fact is, trying to find enough people to keep six people running right now is a challenge…”

Crossman said, “Between accommodating guys wanting days off and people who try for a while and they quit, and go somewhere else. It’s an ongoing thing. And everyone has the same story, from the people I’ve talked to.”

Huber said, “Part of it, of course, is a combination of reasons. One is wages aren’t what they were. Even more critical is the fact that you can’t offer anyone steady work. And what I think is playing into this is the combination that most young people, now, have been indoctrinated from pretty well Kindergarten that we (the oil industry) are the worst thing since the devil.

“Why would you go work for something that you’ve been taught, from Day 1, is worse than the devil?” Huber said in exasperation.

“They’re being indoctrinated into this, and I do believe that is part of the reason,” Huber said.

He added that trades don’t get a lot of promotion in school.

Crossman said, “If they say we’re not going to need oil pretty soon, so I’m going to look at another direction. And none of them have the sense to realize that we still need oil, even if we go electric tomorrow, which is an impossibility.”

Asked what demographic they usually hire, Crossman said, “Our workforce is actually getting older. We do get some young guys come in, but not as many as we used to, by far.”

Huber said they’re getting people in their 30s and 40s. “Service rigs, normally, have been a young man’s game. To give you a rough example, if you go back to the early 80s, when I started, in ‘79, I was field supervising when I was 26 years old. We’ve got rig managers and drillers in their early 40s. We’ve got roughnecks in their 30s and 40s, and even a little bit older than that.”

Crossman said, “We’ve got guys in their 20s, but also guys in their 30s and 40s.”

“Before, you wouldn’t even have someone coming in that age, because you would have so many young people coming in,” Huber said.

“They’d already have a career going, too, but what they’ve been doing has fallen apart due to whatever circumstances. Some of them have experience, some of them don’t,” Crossman said.

“If their job disappeared, whether on a service rig, or oil related, so many of these people basically left, and they aren’t going to come back. Even if they’re working for $5 or $10 an hour less, or whatever the situation is, but it is steady work, and they can put food on the table. They’re not going to come back to not have steady work,” Huber said.

IWS does keep people around during spring break-up, but they’re not working in the field and they’re making less money during that annual slowdown. “Out of 52 weeks, you figure the six to eight week road ban, give or take, a week at Christmas, and off and on for weather, so you’re give or take 10 weeks a year that you don’t work that are unavoidable,” Huber said of the time not in the field.

Crossman added, “And then you get lots of rain, like we had this fall, and all of a sudden your rig is sitting for a week.”

“But that’s unusual,” Huber said.

It also depends on which company individual rigs are working on. That can mean 35 to 40 weeks of work in a year if a particular oil company is not as active. Some years can see less than 30 weeks.

That can make retention difficult. “You do everything you can to hold them, because you know you’re going to need them at some point,” Crossman said.

“You try all sorts of things like work sharing. Every week you put this guy here, and that guy there, and switch people around to get some hours for some people. And we’ve been in the mode of that for five years now,” Huber said.

“Years ago, you had the same crew for a year or more, quite often. If you started the year with the same group of guys, you’d finish with them. You might lose a guy, or someone would get promoted to another rig,” Crossman said. “Now, it’s not quite the same.”

Huber gave an example where one worker was on four different rigs within the same week. That’s the sort of juggling the labour shortage had meant.

“It’s a hassle for the guys, too, because they’re always bringing their clothes in … because you don’t know where you’re going to be the next day,” he said. The usual practice would be to leave your work clothes in the doghouse of the rig at the end of the day.

Asked about the possibility of reducing the number of active rigs to correspond with the available labour, they both explained that doing so doesn’t address the fixed costs of running the business. Reducing rigs would mean reducing other staff, like management and mechanics, something they wouldn’t want to do. And it would be very difficult to ramp back up when things do pick up.

Independent Well Servicing has 42 people, total, including office staff, supervision and mechanics. Asked how many people they’d hire right now, Crossman said, “If 12 guys walked in the door, and they’re all green, you can’t hire them.”

That’s because they can only put a limited amount of inexperienced people on each crew, until they are up to speed.

“You try to have at least three to four spare guys to cover days off. That’s the other thing. Even if guys aren’t working steady, they always need days off for something. And obviously, their days off aren’t like a normal work schedule. Rigs don’t work a normal work schedule. So you have to deal with that, and sick people,” Huber said.

Their oil companies work different rotations. One works 12 on, two off. Earlier this year, they were 10 on and four off. Another is six and one. “Other companies work until they want to stop,” Crossman said.

“There’s different scheduling for different guys. The average is four to seven days a week. This last month has been a bit better. But we’ve had months like September, where we were four days a week,” Huber said. But now, there’s more of a push on.”

“That’s why you want to carry at least four to five extra guys, if you can, on a normal basis, just to accommodate people,” Huber said.

As for how many hours per day, Huber said, “On the rig itself, it’s an average 10-hour day, but you’re on the road, usually most of our rigs are working give or take an hour from town. So that’s a 12-hour day, from the time you’re picked up, to the time you’re dropped off, minimum.”

It actually is a bit longer, when you factor in the time to pick up the whole crew, stop at a convenience store, fuel up, and stop at the shop. They typically pick up their workers at home, and go out as a crew.

“If we could get six experienced rig hands walking in the door, we could crew up another rig,” Crossman said, “But good luck.”

Huber, “If two guys walked in the door today, willing to work, we would hire them in a second.”


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