When Ian Sandlin was laid off last week after 13 months working on oil rigs in southeast Texas, he was surprised to have lasted that long.
"I knew it was coming," he said. "I wasn't the first to be let go."
The 27-year-old Houston native is among thousands of workers caught in an accelerating cull of oil field jobs across the once booming U.S. oil industry. Sandlin has since found other off-field work, but his hours and pay have been cut in half and it was not clear how long it would last.
Interviews with more than a dozen oil workers and job recruiters suggest this is just the first stage of bloodletting as oil drillers, producers and service firms such as Halliburton , Schlumberger and Baker Hughes respond to a 50 percent drop in crude prices since June. Those three firms alone have in recent weeks announced a total of 22,000 job cuts worldwide.
The pace at which the industry is shelving projects, releasing rigs and firing crews "would indicate that we won't be back to usual within six months to a year," said Bob Melk, president of Rigzone, which publishes oil industry data and advertises jobs.
"It depends whether the crews remain available. They could be pulled away to other industries."
While specialists such as geologists and petroleum engineers are still holding on to their jobs, recruiters say that field workforce layoffs like Sandlin's are most likely just the beginning.
"The oil companies are executing the downturn playbook," said Joseph Triepke, managing director of Oilpro.com, a job and networking website for oil professionals. "In the first quarter of a downturn, they let go of the blue collar field workers. The second quarter will be jobs like marketing or public relations."
The number of workers posting resumes online and seeking oil field jobs has soared while job postings have tumbled.
"The call volume has doubled over the last couple of weeks," said Tim Cook, president of PathFinder Staffing, a Houston-based oil and gas recruitment firm. Most of those calls have come from rig workers searching for work, he said.
"We don't have any work from them at this point."
Other recruitment agents also talk of a spike in the number of workers searching for jobs in recent weeks.
Job postings on Oilpro.com have halved since November to less than 12,000 this week, said Triepke. Meanwhile, the number of people signing up on the website, in part to look for jobs, has doubled since last year to 40,000 per month.
Statistical data and parallels with the previous downturn during the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 suggest things can quickly get worse.
Until January, U.S. oil and gas job losses were modest, according to the latest monthly figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While jobs in oil and gas extraction, a sector which includes oilfield workers, fell nearly 2,000 to 199,500 in January, the levels were still above those in mid-2014 when oil prices began to fall. The number for oil and gas support activities, a group that would likely include Sandlin's job, was steady between September to December.
During the similar oil price slump between July and December of 2008, labor data showed a similar pattern.
Jobs in the oil and gas extraction sector did not begin to fall until December, five months into the slide. But once the rout started, it lasted for a year, wiping out over 50,000 jobs.
The activity of the last few weeks shows the industry is preparing for a repeat of such a scenario. While companies are so far protecting high level jobs including managers and petroleum engineers, and recruiters dealing with such jobs report little activity so far, mid-level jobs could soon be hit. Those who still have work are posting their resumes in the expectation that they could soon be let go, recruiters say.
Last year, at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, one of the industry's biggest events, Rigzone published a career guide for professionals joining the booming oil drilling industry, then in its fifth year of rapid expansion. This year, marking the dramatic turnabout, it is planning to offer a "survival guide."
(By Edward McAllister; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)