Lonely, hard work on oil rigs, but salaries soaring

Lonely, hard work on oil rigs, but salaries soaring

SINGAPORE - What jobs offer the highest pay? Investment banking is up there. So is specialist surgery.

But consider this. Slightly over twenty years ago, Johnathan Roberts started work on an oil rig at $5 (S$6.11) an hour. Today, the newly appointed operations manager of Norway's Standard Drilling makes about half a million dollars a year.

Even accounting for inflation, it's a huge jump for the 45-year-old American. Salaries on oil rigs have soared because of a global boom in offshore drilling.

Managers and workers are scarce in this specialised industry, where the work is intense and the job involves living on a platform in remote seas for weeks. For new players in Asia, where the energy demands of booming economies are driving a foray into offshore drilling, the costs and availability of skilled workers will be a big restraining factor.

"The amount of money they are making an hour is just mind-boggling now, just five years ago they were making just half that," said Roberts, who moved to Singapore this year from Texas. He said his pay more than doubled in 1999 when the industry faced a labour shortage like the one that appears to be emerging.

The increasing demand for oil and gas is pushing energy companies to explore frontier areas like the Arctic and new offshore zones given that output from accessible fields is declining. Global oil demand has risen 14 percent in total to 88 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2011 from 2001, according to the BP annual statistical review. Rapidly growing economies have accounted for much of the increase - consumption in China doubled in the same period to 9.76 million bpd.

Energy and mining offer good salaries, said Wyn James, a Singapore-based Briton who left a career in banking this year to open Zhen Global, a firm that recruits and places workers in mining and oil extraction.

"What we are seeing now is an acute shortage of people actually with applied skills, from engineering or chemical backgrounds," James said.

"Even if the skills do exist globally, they don't necessarily exist in the place that is needed. So what we are doing is we are picking up people from all corners of the world and we are sticking them into projects, whether it's short-term or medium-term, but where they can earn reasonable money, live in a different country, live offshore, whatever that may be."

GLOBAL TREND

Deepwater drilling, one of the most difficult but most lucrative parts of the extraction business, has mainly been centred in the Gulf of Mexico. But in the past decade, Brazil has become a key player, exploring untapped reserves in the Santos basin as far away as 300 km (188 miles) southeast of Sao Paulo, and at depths of over 1,500 metres. That drive is sucking in hundreds of rig operators, drillers, engineers and other technicians.

On the other side of the world, China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) aims to build capacity to produce one million barrels per day of oil equivalent in deep waters offshore China by 2020.

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