The Working Coast: Students Are Graduating Into A Historic Oil Bust
Derrick Hadley was born to work in the oil field — almost literally. His father named him after an oil rig, spelling and all.
Derrick’s father spent his life working in the industry. But the son didn’t follow in dad’s footsteps at first. The younger Hadley dropped out of high school when he was 17 years old and went straight into the army. He served 13 years — with two tours in Iraq — and when he got back in 2010, was having a hard time finding a job.
That’s when his dad called and reminded him of the “family business.” Derrick took a job on a land rig. He worked his way up from “worm corner” — the newest, greenest member of the team — up to “lead tongs,” a position with much more responsibility. But what he really wanted was to live up to his namesake: to work on derricks, and be a “derrick man.”
Hadley was on his way to fulfilling that destiny when the price of oil began to collapse, in 2014. He watched the people he worked with get laid off one by one.
“It was either take a demotion or be relieved of duty,” Hadley says.
So he took a gamble. For years, he and his friends had talked about making the jump to management. And they knew that the way to do it was with a two-year degree. Drinking cold beers after work, they would talk about one program in particular: the associate’s degree in Oil and Gas Production Technology at Bossier Parish Community College (BPCC).
When Hadley was earning six figures, taking time off for school didn’t make a lot of sense. But with all the layoffs, school seemed like a safe way to sit out the downturn. Field workers like him are usually among the first casualties in a bust — they’re limited to the skills they’ve picked up on the job, in the positions they’ve held. But the BPCC program can diversify their skill set, and ready them for parts of the industry they’ve never worked in.
“A lot of companies are looking now for a guy who can be a manager or supervisor, but also get out there and swing the hammer or turn the wrench,” says Rocky Duplichan, Program Director of the program at BPCC. “There’s a lot of need for engineers, but there’s a lot more need for people in the field.”
Duplichan worked in the oil field for 44 years. And he says he stayed employed through the 1980s downturn by doing what he teaches now: diversifying.
Yet since the price of oil began to drop in 2014, the BPCC program has lost more than 40 percent of its students. Some have moved on to other fields like healthcare, hoping for more job stability.
As for Hadley’s friends, who would drink and talk about school? None of the others are in classes. Trey got work painting heavy equipment, and Slim moved to Texas to work in logging. Only Tommy still has an oil job — but he commutes from Shreveport to Alaska, doing one month on, one month off.
Hadley’s playing the long game. He’s hoping the bust will swing back around by the time he graduates, so he in can come in ahead of where he left off. And it’s not just about the money. It’s that civilian life doesn’t treat him so well.
“In the oil field you build bonds with people, just like in the military,” Hadley says. “You build a family that you’re real close to. Y’all work together, you look out for one another. It makes it very, very welcoming.”
Hadley craves that kind of life. So he’s sharpening his skills in school, and waiting for the day when he can get back on a rig.
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