Alaska's oilpatch preparing to replace aging workers

Posted: Sunday, July 30, 2000

An AP Alaska Member Exchange

PRUDHOE BAY (AP) -- Ask just about any BP or Phillips Petroleum employee why they love to work up here, and the first answer is invariably the same: money.

Answer No. 2 is usually esprit de corps, followed quickly by the week-on, week-off work schedule and the jobs' challenges. That's no surprise. The companies running America's largest oil field have spent a lot of time and cash making their employees happy.

The result is a dedicated staff with low turnover -- and a problem.

As Alaska's oilpatch ages, so does its work force. And now many of those who started as brash 20-somethings in the 1970s are ready to cash in their pensions and retire.

BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. has 650 hourly workers on the North Slope. Their average age is 50 and average experience is more than 20 years. The company expects to lose 15 employees a year to retirement.

Phillips Alaska Petroleum Co., the North Slope's other major producer, is in similar straits.

To replace those retirees, the companies are ramping up recruiting efforts, sponsoring technical job-oriented classes at the University of Alaska and raiding contractors. When it's over, the North Slope promises to look drastically different.

A sculpture commemorating the field's 1977 start up sits in the field's operations center, engraved with the names of the original workers. They're almost 100 percent male.

Today, the University of Alaska's new process technology course, a specially designed curriculum tailored for industry, has one woman for every three men enrolled.

Also, the men working Prudhoe Bay's control rooms now are those who helped build the flow stations and processing plants in the 1970s. They watched as daily production soared to nearly 2 million barrels a day in the late 1980s, then declined to half that today.

''The perception is we're a declining, dropping industry and the future hasn't been very bright,'' said BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell. The reality, he said, is that oil remains in the ground, new discoveries are promising, and that with an aging work force, plenty of opportunities remain.

Bruce Robertson, 53, supervises Flow Station No. 1, a massive structure that processes oil, gas and water from more than 100 production wells. He started in 1978 and will retire shortly.

''We're seeing a huge group of people who are at retirement age,'' he said. ''The jobs are so great, the time off is so good, people just didn't want to leave.''

Roy Wells, 47, started in the industry when he was 18. At 25 he started working for Arco Alaska in Prudhoe Bay, where he helped build Flow Station No. 2. Today he manages the facility, though after December 2001 he'll be a retiree setting up a financial planning company and playing jazz at bar mitzvahs and weddings.

''There's a lot of talent around in the contractor work force,'' he said. ''They're knocking on the door, wanting to come in.''

That's understandable. Jobs on the slope start at $70,000 for workers just out of school and top out at $110,000 or so for managers, according to Kitty Farnham, BP's manager for Alaska hire.

''They're great jobs,'' she said.

Pat Mogford, 48, is one of those hoping to fill the thinning ranks.

The single mother of four grown kids was looking for a change when she heard about the process technology courses being taught at the university's Tanana Valley Campus. She enrolled and is interning this summer at Prudhoe Bay.

Mogford was one of 25 students to enroll in TVC's inaugural course. Statewide, 82 students signed up for the first semester in January. In two years, if all goes well, they'll earn an associate degree and begin work as a technicians on the Slope.

The curriculum was designed after close consultation with what's known as the ''process industry'' -- mining, petroleum exploration, seafood processing and electrical production, said Jake Poole, TVC's interim director.

''We want to do it right -- train Alaskans to take Alaska jobs and not (force industry to) go to Louisiana and Texas,'' he said.

While BP and Phillips are bracing for a retirement wave, not everyone who's eligible has chosen to follow that path.

Len Doyle worked 29 years for Arco before switching to BP after a buyout in January. Today he's the process operator for Flow Station No. 2. He's not going anywhere soon.

''This is the best job in the world. I've reached the pinnacle of my profession,'' he said. ''This is where the action is.''

The coming turnover will be turbulent, he said, but beneficial.

''We'll be in pretty heavy training mode. But it's always good to have new blood, and the training, in a way, also works as a refresher for yourself.''



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