Working on an Oil Rig
Curious minds might wonder what it’s like to work on an offshore oil platform, surrounded by vast expanses of sea and sky. What are the advantages of such a life? Is it lonely, is it safe, and is cabin fever a thing?
Pursuing a career in the oil exploration industry can present many opportunities for those with a thirst for adventure who don’t mind long stretches away from home. Firstly, there’s the chance to save money. Out there on the ocean, you won’t find too many chances to blow your salary.
Then, there’s the added allure of working three-weeks-on, three-weeks off. While workers put in long hours, often working 12-hour shifts for three weeks on the trot, the reward of 21 days off on full pay has its appeal.
You’ll need to be strong and fit, and may have to submit to a medical exam. In terms of personal qualities, you’ll have to be able to work well with others in a close-knit environment. And a sense of humour is a plus.
The downside of choosing to work offshore is that if someone in the family is ill, you can’t just go home. You sacrifice weddings, birthdays, funerals and anniversaries for life on the rig. It’s a helicopter trip to get there so there’s no hailing a taxi home.
Globally, some 1.5 million people are employed in this industry, working from around 2,800 oil platforms. Workers can be based on an oil platform in the North Sea or in some far-flung location such as Brazil, the Gulf of Mexico, the Middle East or South Africa. Positions vary widely: from drillers to divers to electricians, mechanics to welders, crane operators to engineers and caterers to cooks.
According to global workforce provider, Swift Worldwide Resources, the average salary of an oil rig worker starts at €45,000. If an individual decides to stay in the field, specialised training will increase their earning potential. Drill technicians, for example, can expect to earn up to €180,000. Engineering or geology graduates can earn in the region of €90,000 as a starting salary, which increases incrementally as they gain experience.
It’s no secret, however, that the offshore oil business is experiencing challenges at the moment and job opportunities are hard to come by due to growing competition from the onshore sector.
South African, Christo Van Zyl, has spent time working on FPSOs, the floating, production, storage and offload vessels that are used by the offshore oil industry. Right now, he says that it’s difficult to get work as a result of low oil prices.
“Even when oil prices were up it was hard. You have to know the right people or be in the right place at the right time,” says Van Zyl, who worked as a supervisor for the rope access division in the construction team.
“We were replacing pipe lines, valves, pumps, motors and production equipment. All the rope access members are skilled riggers and bolting technicians as well.”
And the perks of working in the offshore oil industry? “From the moment you get on a plane to fly to the offshore platform to work, your bank account is untouched until you get home again,” he says. “There are big pay cheques, the food is good and you work only six months of the year.”
On the flip side, Van Zyl says it takes a ‘special breed’ to work in the sector, with a thick skin being a must to handle the pressure. And not everyone can deal with being away from home.
The environment tends to be predominantly male. In Van Zyl’s experience, of 100 personnel on board a platform, normally only three to five would be women. However, the North Sea offshore oil industry employs more women, he says.
One such worker is Wendy Stronach, who works on an offshore oil platform in the North Sea, off the coast of Aberdeen in Scotland. She’s a steward, covering three main areas: galley, laundry and accommodation. Her galley role involves being kitchen assistant to the chef.
“Each role has its own daily deep-clean rota. All stewards are involved in the unloading of the food containers that arrive by ship, usually on a weekly basis. The containers are to restock the food, bond [the shop on the rig] and the cleaning stores.”
Stronach can occupy any of these roles, night shift or day shift, from one trip to the next.
So how hard is it to get work?
Having stated working offshore just over four years ago, Stronach believes she got lucky.
“I completed my survival training and sent my CV off to a few places. I was invited to an interview about two weeks later. I met people there who had been trying for two years and that was their first interview. I got my job remarkably fast.”
The perks for her include time off between trips, and the salary.
According to Stronach, however, the North Sea is no different than other locations when it comes to men making up most of the workforce.
In her experience, the only women on the rig are stewards, helicopter flight administrators and the occasional chemist or medic.
“I’ve never been on a rig that wasn’t 95% male.”
And, as with most offshore oil rig jobs, Stronach’s can be strenuous. Being a steward requires 12 hours of full-on graft every day for three weeks at a time.
“By the time I finish each shift I usually just want to shower, phone my other half for a catch up, have a read of a book to unwind and get some sleep before it all starts again.”
To offer some semblance of work-life balance, she says oil platforms have TV rooms, a gym and Wi-Fi for crew use.
For those contemplating a career on an oil rig, Stronach says it’s important to factor in relationships.
“The hardest part is the strain that it puts on your relationships. You’re constantly leaving for weeks at a time. I’ve noticed that a lot of relationships fail in this industry.”
Wicklow man, Michael Connolly, works on chemical and petrochemical plants and oil refineries these days, but he has worked on oil rigs in the past, for companies such as Solar Turbines and Elliott Group.
Connolly’s expertise is in rotating equipment, including servicing, overhauling and upgrading it. Referring to the job situation, he said it’s more difficult to secure work at the moment because of the oil price dip.
Big players such as Shell, BP and Exxon have downsized, according to Connolly, but he says this applies mainly to the North Sea, whereas the Gulf of Mexico has been less affected.
He advises people to tread carefully before choosing a career in the offshore arena. “Anyone considering this should first try finding a job onshore and having a regular life. If not, you’d better find an understanding partner!”