That Was Quick! Shale Jobs Growth Has Ended


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We’re not even two weeks into 2020 and the oil market has ripped through a cycle already. Courtesy of geopolitical spiciness in the Middle East, prices jumped, had a little think about it, and then slumped back into the easy chair. Still, with Iran’s nuclear deal unraveling and the U.S. election spooling up in the background, we can expect more mini-dramas as the year unfolds.

But one cycle has likely come to an end already, if Friday’s job numbers are any guide.

The U.S. oil and gas production business cut 6,500 jobs in November, according to preliminary figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That took its ranks to 430,200 — effectively flat with where it was in November 2018. In other words, the period of year-over-year job gains in the sector that began in June 2017 has come to an end. When December’s figures are published, and notwithstanding an increase in extraction jobs, overall payrolls will likely show a slight dip.

That Was Quick! Shale Jobs Growth Has Ended

At 30 months, this latest period of gains was notably short, roughly half the length of the two prior cycles. It also came off the deepest jobs recession in the industry going back at least three decades. That whipsaw speaks to both the scale of the crash in energy markets that kicked off in late 2014 and the compressed time scales of shale production versus the longer cycles of conventional fields.

It isn’t all bad, though. While jobs have plateaued, they have leveled out at where they were in late 2015. That is still 100,000 or so fewer than the pre-crash peak. But as is by now painfully clear from the drubbing meted out to E&P stocks, that frenzy of activity was economically unsustainable.

That Was Quick! Shale Jobs Growth Has Ended

Just this week, Apache Corp. announced hundreds of job cuts despite having also delivered news of a major discovery in offshore Suriname. Meanwhile, Occidental Petroleum Corp. is also beginning layoffs as it tries to reduce the debt taken on in last year's acquisition of Anadarko Petroleum Corp. 

Clouds over long-term demand and the sheer volatility induced by things like tremors in the Middle East mean the mindset of doing more with less should be a lasting legacy of the past five years’ experience. By my rough calculation, E&P wages are running at around 10% of revenue — on a par with 2012, when oil averaged almost $100 a barrel . With E&P companies still early in the process of repairing balance sheets and reputations with investors, even geopolitical frisson isn’t likely to spur another hiring binge. 

That Was Quick! Shale Jobs Growth Has Ended

Oil and gas extraction employment figures are released on the same schedule as overall payroll figures. Oil and gas support employment (roughly 60% of the upstream workforce) comes with a two-month lag. Hence, November 2019 is the latest month for which we have complete data.

I calculate this by multiplying employees by hours worked and hourly rates to get the overall wage bill. Revenues are calculated by multiplying production of crude oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids by average monthly spot prices.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was editor of the Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column and wrote for the Financial Times' Lex column. He was also an investment banker.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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