How to earn $170,000 a year driving a truck (Warning: it’s messy)

Roughing it in Bahrain
Roughing it in Bahrain
Image: AP Photo / Hasan Jamali
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In the Canadian province of Alberta, the epicenter of a boom in the production of bitumen from oil sands, senior geoscientists saw a 14.5% rise in salary this year, to $231,000. When you include overtime, truck drivers in the province are earning up to $170,000. Next year, these salaries and others in Alberta’s oil sands will rise on average by another 4.2%, as against a unionized-workers’ average of 2.0%.

You have to negotiate for this pay, which is the nature of oil booms globally—you show up on the spot, and if your skill is in demand, and you know how to talk your hand, you are one of those with the salaries cited above. The average wage in Canada’s oilfields is $128,700. And it is no aberration, if you go by the annual Hays survey of global oil and gas jobs. In Australia, for instance, the average oilfield salary for a local hire is $164,000, while in Brazil it’s $120,000.

There is a serious skill shortage in the world’s oilfields. Hard numbers are hard to come by, but the employment trendline—look at the chart below—and summonses for workers are so shrill and widespread that the demand at least seems high. The first reason is the obvious one–booms require labor near and far, and it takes time for enough people to hear word of work, and to get there; it requires even more time for schools to turn out sufficient numbers of graduates. Texas’s Permian Basin, for example, is reporting a tough time filling jobs not just in the oil patch, but unrelated positions that have opened because of all the new people in town. But a second reason for the shortage is generational—tens of thousands of skilled geologists and engineers are nearing or at retirement age, and are leaving the profession.

Surge in the Bakken shale
Surge in the Bakken shale
Image: Federal Reserve of Minneapolis

If you are a travelling sort, a key art of this game is arbitrage. In some countries, foreigners are paid more than local labor—in Colombia, for example, you earn on average $69,000 in the oilfield if you are Colombian, while if you are a foreigner the pay is $122,000. That’s the incentive to attract the right skills. In other oil patches, it is the opposite. Non-Brazilians in Brazil make $107,000, and in US oilfields, Americans make an average of $124,000, while foreigners are paid $119,000.

Why don’t more young people head for the oil patch? According to CareerCast.com, oil rig workers have the fourth-worst possible job in the world (although better than lumberjacks, dairy farmers or enlisted soldiers). That is just ahead of newspaper reporters, who have the fifth-worst. One roughneck working in North Dakota’s Bakken shale has some harrowing descriptions:

I don’t necessarily enjoy getting covered, and I mean literally dripping wet from head to toe, with oil base mud, or getting choked out of the hopper house because a floor hand likes to dump sacks of chemicals in the hopper too fast, or dealing with pump problems or valve washouts or busted shaker screens.

On the other hand, the man, aged 22, says he earned $104,000 last year for working only six months (because oilmen alternate a week or two on the job with the same amount of time off). And, he adds, ”When everything’s running smoothly, everything’s clean and working right, it’s probably the most laid back, easy going job out there.” So what are you waiting for?