Our mission to help you navigate the new normal is fueled by subscribers. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.
The oil and gas sector isn’t just facing a price crunch—it’s facing a jobs bust, too.
The oil, natural gas, and chemicals industry in the U.S. eliminated 107,000 jobs between March and August of this year, according to a report released Monday by Deloitte on the future of work in the sector. It’s the “fastest rate of layoffs in the industry’s history”, the report says—a remarkable pace even for an industry famed for its sky-high booms and punishing busts.
In fact, that’s part of the problem. Since 2014, the year Saudi Arabia unleashed a price war to try to protect market share from the shale boom, the impact on sector workers has become more extreme, the study found.
Between 2014 and 2019, a single dollar swing in oil prices affected 3,000 exploration, production and oil field services jobs, Deloitte said. That’s up from 1,500 jobs throughout the 1990s, when rising oil prices also largely added jobs. In the years between—the first decade and a half of the 2000s—jobs were highly price-sensitive, too, the report notes. But because oil prices were rising, those jobs were being added, rather than taken away.
But this time around, many of the jobs lost aren’t expected to come back quickly. If oil stays around $45/barrel—at the moment, it’s well below that—70% of those jobs will not return before the end of next year, the report predicted.
The forces weighing on oil prices are both immediate—the risks to economic growth, and to political stability in the U.S.—and long term. Last week, S&P Global estimated that changing consumer patterns spurred by the pandemic (think: working from home), and the economic impact of the pandemic means 2.5 million barrels per day of oil demand has likely been lost longterm. That builds on warnings even from oil and gas CEOs themselves that oil demand may be on the verge of peaking—or that it has already peaked.
Add to that the transformational change the oil and gas sector, particularly in Europe, is embarking on. Shell, BP, Total, Equinor and other major European legacy energy companies have committed to reaching “net zero” emissions by 2050. That process has to happen quickly, and so far, it’s come with billions of dollars in write-offs and announcements of nearly 20,000 job losses from BP and Shell alone. (Whether that’s truly because of the net-zero transformation, or a matter simply of sinking oil prices—or, more likely, both—is a matter of debate.)
That transformation doesn’t just mean, as seems initially clear, huge job cuts. The Deloitte study also raises questions about how the companies’ recruitment efforts will also adapt to make these transformations work. Those employees look, generally, like relatively young people, with the kinds of technical and mathematical skills that can help guide the mass digitization that will need to occur alongside the low-carbon shift. (Renewable energy networks, by their very nature, are more digital and complex, as the U.K.’s National Grid found out during lockdown.)
There are a few problems here. Many of the sectors’ existing workers are, for one, nearing retirement. An oil and gas job search study from last year that Deloitte references estimated that about 50% of the workforce is “tenured,” with the majority retiring within the next five to seven years. Whether through job cuts or retirement, the sector faces a huge loss of institutional knowledge over the coming years.
Meanwhile, even for “conventional” oil and gas jobs, the skills pipeline has narrowed. University graduates from fields like geology and petroleum engineering dropped between 15 and 21% between 2015 and 2019, according to university data cited in the report.
And attracting a new kind of oil and gas employee runs up against both stiff competition from tech companies vying for many of the same skills, but also employee concerns about “sustainability”—in other words, resistance from young people to working for energy companies in an age of climate change.
Training the existing workforce to adapt to the new kinds of jobs—and limiting those punishing waves of job losses—may be the most obvious option, and there’s evidence that companies like Shell have been doing this.
But that takes investment, in a time of crunched profits, with plenty of competing demands for where the money should be put. Clean energy investment by oil and gas companies, for one, is still at an incredibly low base—Deloitte puts it at 1 to 2% of capital investment in 2019, a figure also cited internationally by the International Energy Agency. Such an investment still rests on having the revenue to do so. Even a repositioning oil company is still reliant on oil prices, as Shell CEO Ben van Beurden admitted earlier this week.
The impact on oil towns
It’s a vicious cycle that doesn’t just affect oil and gas companies, but whole regions, from Houston to Calgary, Alberta.
“The [oil, gas, and chemicals] industry is often held to ransom by brutal price cycles and painful successions of over- and under-capacity periods,” the report’s authors said—and that hurts the sector long-term.
“Appallingly, these periods come in the way of the industry’s progressive efforts toward sustainability, operational agility, and workforce improvement.”
Naysayers may brush off the the new normal part of the sector’s cyclicality, the report notes: in other words, just another bust before the boom.
But companies that see the challenge now, it warned, and push to actually embrace the shift, may get a critical head start in what will eventually be an industry-wide race.
More must-read energy sector coverage from Fortune:
- To meet net zero emissions targets, China—and the rest of the world—needs these technologies
- BP is laying out its vision for a low-carbon future. Investors are skeptical
- Uncharted Power’s Jessica O. Matthews has a plan to revive America’s crumbling infrastructure
- After the boom: Canada’s oil capital faces an uncertain future
- There’s an ulterior motive to China’s carbon neutral pledge: Cornering the green tech market