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Oil boom brings scarcity of workers in small towns

By Sean Murphy

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Aug. 13 2012 12:55 p.m. MDT

In this Wednesday, July 18, 2012 photo, Marvin Vaughn, warden of the William S. Key Correctional Center, gestures as he answers a question during an interview in his office in Ft. Supply, Okla. Eight inmates have escaped since January, more than all of last year, and prison officials say low staffing levels are at least partially responsible.

Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press

WOODWARD, Okla. — The local prison is so short on guards that inmates can sometimes just walk away. A gas station barely has enough cashiers to keep up with the trucks filling the parking lot. And "help wanted" signs seem to hang from every restaurant and shop.

Yet almost no one is interested in the jobs.

This is the flip side of the nation's oil and natural gas boom. Although the expansion of drilling has breathed economic life into many small Oklahoma towns, the lucrative opportunities are also drawing people away from traditional service-sector jobs and even once-coveted state positions.

The result: Many businesses and government agencies now struggle to find enough workers. Most able-bodied people can double or triple their income in the oil patch.

"If you can walk and breathe out here, you can get a good job," said LaVern Phillips, president of the Industrial Foundation in Woodward. The county's unemployment rate hovered around 3 percent in June, 5 percentage points lower than the national average. In some nearby counties, the rate has dipped below 2 percent.

In towns like Woodward, which is home to dozens of oil and gas companies, housing is scarce, hotels are booked solid and vacant jobs are everywhere.

"Everybody is having a tough time hiring," Phillips said. "It's a good problem to have."

But it hasn't been good for the minimum-security state prison in nearby Fort Supply. Eight inmates have escaped since January, more than all of last year, and prison officials say low staffing levels are at least partially to blame.

With no fence around the perimeter and just 54 officers to watch more than 1,000 inmates around the clock, a prisoner can simply wait for the overworked guards to be distracted and make the short 30-yard walk to a nearby highway.

"I could hire 17 correctional officers today if I could get them to walk through the door," said William Monday, the prison's deputy warden.

When Monday started working at the prison six years ago, job applicants were looking for a career with good benefits and a state pension after 20 years.

"I could pull a register and get four or five guys to interview," he said. "Over the last three years, I've got more vacancies than I have people to interview."

A starting correctional officer makes $11.82 per hour, but jobs in the oil field start at close to $20 per hour, and without the extensive background check required of prison workers, Monday said.

"We're competing with convenience stores for workers," Monday said.

Sam Jones, the prison's security chief, said he's lost two officers to jobs in the energy industry in just the past few months, including a 10-year veteran who worked as a supervisory sergeant.

"I would say at least a dozen have skipped ship for those kinds of jobs," Jones said. "I hope some of those jobs are still available when I retire."

Oklahoma is one of several states, including North and South Dakota, that has enjoyed a boom in the energy sector driven in large part by new and improved drilling techniques such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which cracks open fissures in rock formations to retrieve oil and gas.

The statewide unemployment rate is the fourth lowest in the nation, at 4.7 percent, and more than 6,200 jobs have been added in the mining sector since last year, according to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.

Although nothing like the oil boom in the 1970s and 1980s, when Oklahoma had more than twice as many rigs pumping for oil and gas, the most recent boom started around the time natural gas prices spiked in 2008. Gas prices have since dropped, but producers have simply switched their focus to oil and other liquids.

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