Don't have a college education and want to make bank and take half the year off? Oil rig work is the hot job for many Americans

Not many on-the-ground jobs  that offer a salary over $55,000 for just half a year’s work. But that’s the money for those who opt for the rigor of an oil rig,  a hot topic on people’s tongues this week. 

According to Google, interest in oil rig jobs is having a moment. Searches for oil rig work reached a five-year high, surging particularly especially in the southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Arkansas, which abut the Gulf of Mexico and its 6,000-plus oil and gas structures, or rigs. A few reasons help explain why more people want in on the job despite deadly on-the-clock risks and increased environmental pollution. 

Good money; no college required

According to research on the impact of oil and gas job opportunities, most jobs in the industry pay well, especially for those who don’t have college degrees. Entry-level oil work only requires a high school diploma or equivalent, which could be tempting for more than half of all Americans over age 25 who don’t have a college degree. Starting salaries average $55,000 per year, according to ZipRecruiter, while those in management positions could pocket well over $100,000 per year, according to oil industry law firm Arnold & Itkin.

According to Amanda Chuan, a professor in labor relations at Michigan State University, the attractive starting pay especially entices college-aged young men, who account for about 20% of the workforce, and are increasingly facing decisions between enrolling in school and risking years of debt and taking a high starting salary that they could pocket much sooner.  

“These are jobs that don’t require a lot of cognizant skill, but you’re paid a lot for the long shifts, living in a camp, being away from home, chemical exposure and high risk of injury,” she said. “It’s extremely exhausting, mentally draining and a lot of people are not willing to do it—so if you are, you’ll make a lot.” It’s a concept called compensating wage differentials, Chuan explained—essentially, paying more for less-desirable work. 

Oil rig workers also face pollution hazards, according to the U.S Department of Labor,  due to spending a lot of time in confined spaces. Petroleum storage tanks, mud pits, reserve pits and other spaces around an oil wellhead can all come with more exposure to chemicals, flammable vapors or gasses that could cause workers to suffocate. 

The cost-of-living crisis, though, is making more people willing to take on the back-breaking work (and fatal risks) of rigs. 

According to a report by the nonprofit National Low Income Housing Coalition, renters nationwide are struggling to afford housing, with the lowest-income residents in states like Arizona, Texas and Florida most worried about affording housing. 

Boom-bust nature of the industry

Another reason for more labor interest in rigs is just the “boom-bust” nature of the oil industry. During booms, periods of high demand for oil, investors pour in and trigger overproduction, according to the Colorado School of Mines. Busts follow the overproduction, which see lower prices for oil and under-investment by the industry. The bust period of lower prices then triggers more demand for cheap oil, which shifts the price higher again and the cycle continues. 

The current boom that finds oil rig workers in hot demand right now is in part due to global wars, like the invasion of Ukraine and the siege on Gaza, which means the country can’t rely on as much oil coming in. “Because our usual supplies for energy are being cut short right now,” Chuan said, “the country is turning more to domestic production of oil.” 

The boom-bust nature of the industry also affects changes in labor demand, she said, as “during booms, newspapers report thousands of new high-paying jobs,” but “during busts, many jobs vanish, potentially leaving thousands unemployed.” Several such layoffs have occurred as the industry cycles through its high and lower value periods, with 2014 and 2020 as some of the biggest years for bust-fueled layoffs.

Chuan explained that the high starting pays and long vacations are meant to compensate for the risks people assume on the job. For younger workers, the particular risk is that “it leads you away from investing in your human capital, or education and transferable skills, that could help you find future employment that does not depend on the boom-bust cycle.”  

Half a year of PTO—but 12-hour days 

According to Arnold & Itkin’s blog post, many workers face shifts of 14 days on the clock, 21 days off. That  means they work for full-day shifts, which can be up to 12 hours long and include night shifts, for two straight weeks. Then they are rewarded with three weeks off. For those who work on offshore rig sites, “two straight weeks at sea can be a harrowing experience for many, although some rigs are equipped with impressive living quarters for the crew.” 

Living quarters can include “an onsite gym, theater, indoor sports facilities, computers, and more to occupy the time,” the blog says. That can be essential, as many people are not able to return home on their off time due to travel expenses and logistics and end up staying “on the rig the entire time.” 

What would you do on the oil rigs, and what do you risk? 

According to Indeed, an oil rig worker’s main responsibility is to extract, store and process oil—relying on lots of equipment. They find themselves at the helms of drills, cranes, forklifts and more to guide pipes into drilling wells. They gain an understanding of chemical levels to prevent the pipes from corroding and track environmental changes that could affect drilling productivity. 

On risks, Arnold & Itkin states that oil rig crews experience some of the highest rates of injuries and fatalities in the country. 2008 was a particularly deadly year, with 120 oil and gas workers killed on the job. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 470 oil workers died between 2014 and 2019, over 400 of them on the job and 69 of them from cardiac complications. The death rate has also been increasing: In 2019, the rate of oil worker fatalities was about 12%, compared to about 6% in 2017.  

The most common causes of injuries include fires, falls, fatigue, machinery malfunctions, and lack of safety culture on rigs, according to Arnold & Itkin. In one Reddit thread, nearly 100 users shared their most terrifying experiences on oil rigs—describing brutal burns, equipment that maimed people, and witnessing entire coastlines degrade quickly. 

According to several studies, marine ecosystems and communities who live near waters with rigs face threats from water contamination and dying sea animals. Especially dangerous are seismic airguns, which are towed behind ships and used to shoot blasts of compressed air which are 100,000 times more intense than jet engines, to find oil trapped deep underneath the ocean floor. According to Oceana, an international organization that researches oceans, these blasts are repeated about 6 times a minute almost all day at oil rigs for weeks at a time, and can kill marine animals like sea turtles and fish. 

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