Experience: Asset or liability?

Oil patch employers struggle with dilemma of aging workforce

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Doug Marshall has some years to go before he qualifies for senior citizen discounts, but the 53-year-old Soldotna resident is the perfect poster boy for the state's aging oilfield workforce.

"Oil pipeline construction in the mid-1970s and the employment boom associated with high oil prices in the early '80s brought a large number of young workers to Alaska," according to an article on the aging of Alaska's workforce by Jeff Hadland and Greg Williams. The article appeared in the September 2000 Alaska Economic Trends, published by the state's Department of Labor and Workforce Develop-ment.

"Many of these workers remained in Alaska and have aged in place, resulting in a significant increase in the average age of Alaska's workers. Because of a number of demographic factors, it is not likely there will be enough children of those older workers to fill the anticipated employment needs of Alaska employers over the coming decade," Hadland and Williams reported.

Marshall got his first taste of the oil patch in Ventura, Calif., when he was 22.

"My first job was with Otis Engineering as a wireline helper," Marshall said. Two years later, he had advanced to operator and was working on Unocal and Chevron platforms off the coast of Carpenteria, Calif.

Coming to Alaska in 1973 to "kind of look around," Marshall did wireline work in the Swanson River area for several months, moving on to Utah and eventually back to California.

In 1974, he married and set up home base in California with his wife, Carla. But home base meant little in terms of work assignments, with Marshall returning to Alaska to work for a company named Camco.

"They had me do some work in Cook Inlet," he said. "I came here to finish a job and then go back to California."

While sitting at the Anchorage airport waiting to board his flight home, Marshall was tapped on the shoulder by Camco's Anchorage office manager.

"He said, 'You know, we're really shorthanded on the (North) Slope. Would you mind going up for a week and helping out?'" Marshall said.

Forty-five days later, the company finally flew him back to Anchorage and brought Carla from California for a three-day visit.

"She sat around and read and was sad all the time because I did not want to do anything but sleep," Marshall said.

In 1978, he accepted an offer from Shell Oil Co. to work as a wireline operator on one of the company's Cook Inlet platforms. His career with Shell eventually spanned more than 20 years and carried Marshall through the development of Alaska's oil industry.

Home base shifted to Alaska, with a short two-year assignment in the Bakersfield, Calif., area, where the couple lived in a 47-home company-owned community. During that time, Carla began working for Shell. Marshall made frequent trips between Shell's offices in Houston, Texas, and the company's Alaska operations. In 1984, the couple finally returned to Alaska, with Marshall continuing to work for Shell and Carla working for Peak Oilfield Service Co. in Anchorage and on the North Slope.

Marshall's resume includes an assignment as drilling foreman for Shell's exploratory drilling program in the St. George Basin, approximately 150 miles north of the Aleutian Islands and on the company's man-made gravel islands north of Prudhoe Bay. What you won't find mention of is the experience of riding out a five-day storm with 70-foot seas and stories of working with whaling crews out of Kaktovik.

"It was one of the highlights of my career to go out there and meet those people," Marshall said of assistance his crew gave to the whaling communities of northern Alaska.

In 1998, when Shell sold its two Cook Inlet platforms to Cross Timbers Operating Co., the Marshalls were faced with a big decision -- to continue with Shell, transfer to the new owner or look at other opportunities.

"I thought my chances were a lot better to remain here at home," Marshall said. "I definitely made the right choice."

Marshall said he's not ready to retire from his position as production superintendent, Cross Timbers' top-ranking position in Alaska.

Looking back, Carla, who is currently employed by Inlet Drilling, said the couple's employment in the oil industry has "let us live quite a comfortable life."

What has been difficult for the couple is the impact of demanding work schedules.

"The time away from each other and then having to learn to live with each other again has been tough," she said of the travel that's been required. After being in their home in Soldotna for almost 10 years, Carla is ready for the next adventure.

If the couple decides to move on, finding someone to fill Doug Marshall's shoes won't be easy. Replacing personnel lost during transition of ownership has been challenging.

"There's a number of people that work for us here in the inlet that are very knowledgeable about the inlet," Marshall said. "They're all in the same boat I am -- long-term employees, and I think we're all about the same age. The majority of us are over 50 years old.

"We've got two new hires and I'm getting ready to hire a third," he said. "But all of these people are well-experienced and the employees that we did keep (during the transition) are all long-term employees.

"They're probably what I would call the best in Cook Inlet."

For those considering careers in Alaska's oil industry, Marshall advised, "Get an education.

"I know everyone doesn't have that opportunity, but experience is the big thing even with an education, and how do you get it? That's just it. You've got to break the barrier somehow, but it's not an easy thing to do. There's a lot of young people out there that want to get out and work, but it's just difficult to get into the business."

Marshall said that although Alaska is a big state, the industry's small size works in favor of those wanting to break into it.

"In Alaska, it's who you know," he said.

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