Roustabouts do the routine physical labor and maintenance around oil wells, pipelines, and natural gas facilities. Sample tasks include clearing trees and brush, mixing concrete, manually loading and unloading pipe and other materials onto or from trucks or boats, and assembling pumps, boilers, valves, and steam engines and performing minor repairs on such equipment. Roustabouts find work in about 32 states nationwide, especially California, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. There are approximately 28,000 roustabouts working in the United States.
History of Roustabout Career
In the 19th century, people began to search for oil and extract it from deposits inside the earth. The first exploratory oil well was drilled in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania. After much hard work with crude equipment, the drilling crew struck oil, and within a short time the first oil boom was on.
From the earliest days of drilling for oil, roustabouts have performed the necessary manual labor tasks of clearing the land and preparing the site for drilling. Nowadays, with increasing automation and mechanization in the oil industry, roustabouts routinely operate motorized lifts, power tools, electronic testers, and hand-held computers. Although roustabouts still perform such chores as digging trenches or cutting down trees and brush, the advent of labor-saving equipment has enabled roustabouts to assume more maintenance and troubleshooting responsibilities.
The Job of Roustabouts
Roustabouts perform a wide range of tasks, from picking up trash at well sites to running heavy equipment. Part of their work involves clearing sites that have been selected for drilling and building a solid base for drilling equipment. Roustabouts cut down trees to make way for roads or to reduce fire hazards. They dig trenches for foundations, fill excavated areas, mix up batches of wet concrete, and pour concrete into building forms. Other jobs include loading and unloading pipe and other materials onto or from trucks and boats.
Roustabouts also dig drainage ditches around wells, storage tanks, and other installations. They walk flow lines to locate leaks and clean up spilled oil by bailing it into barrels or other containers. They also paint equipment such as storage tanks and pumping units and clean and repair oil field machinery and equipment.
The tools roustabouts use range from simple hand tools like hammers and shovels to heavy equipment such as backhoes or trackhoes. Roustabouts use heavy wrenches and other hand tools to help break out and replace pipe, valves, and other components for repairs or modifications and truck winches for moving or lifting heavy items. Roustabouts also operate motorized lifts, power tools, and electronic sensors and testers. They also may operate tractors with shredders, forklifts, or ditching machines.
Roustabout Career Requirements
Little or no formal training or experience is required to get a job as a roustabout. However, there are more applicants than there are jobs, which allows employers to be selective, choosing people who have previous experience as a roustabout or formal training in a related area. While in high school, classes in mathematics, shop, and technical training will be helpful in preparing to work as a roustabout.
More and more applicants have earned an associate’s degree in petroleum technology, which demonstrates their familiarity with oil field operations and equipment. In general, any technical training, specialized courses, or pertinent experience can be a definite advantage in securing a job and later in getting promotions to more responsible positions.
Certification or Licensing
Most roustabouts are not union members. Those who are, however, may be represented by the International Union of Petroleum and Industrial Workers, the International Federation of Petroleum and Chemical Workers, or the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union.
Roustabouts must be physically fit, with good coordination, agility, and eyesight. They need a current valid vehicle operator’s license and a good driving record. Depending on the equipment they operate, roustabouts also may need a commercial driver’s license as well as crane and forklift licenses. They must enjoy working out of doors, be willing to work in extreme weather, and often are required to work more than 40 hours a week. In addition, employers may require that job applicants pass a physical examination and a screening test for drug use before hiring them. Applicants also might have to take aptitude tests to determine their mechanical ability.
Those who become roustabouts should be ready to pitch in with extra work when the situation requires it. They should work well both on their own and as part of a crew. Those on offshore platforms must be able to get along with the same people for extended periods of time.
Roustabouts need to be comfortable with an unpredictable field; at times they do not have steady work, and at other times they work several weeks straight with only a few days off. Many roustabouts have a taste for challenge, travel, and adventure rather than a settled home life. Others look at the job as a short-term way to gain experience, earn money for college or some other specific expense, or to prepare for a better paying job in the oil industry.
Exploring Roustabout Career
Talking with someone who has worked as a roustabout or in another oil field operations job would be a very helpful and inexpensive way of exploring this field.
Those who live near an oil field may be able to arrange a tour by contacting the public relations department of oil companies or drilling contractors. Another option is to drive by oil fields that lie along public roads and public lands and take an unofficial tour by car.
Some summer and other temporary jobs as roustabouts are available, and they provide a good way to find out about this field. Temporary workers can learn firsthand the basics of oil field operations, equipment maintenance, safety, and other aspects of the work. Those individuals who are thinking about this kind of work should also consider entering a two-year training program in petroleum technology to learn about the field.
Most roustabouts are employed by oil companies, working with production crews around existing oil wells. Others work for drilling contractors, which are companies that specialize in drilling new wells. Roustabouts usually work under the supervision of a maintenance superintendent and frequently assist skilled workers such as welders, electricians, and mechanics.
Potential roustabouts can contact drilling contractors or oil companies directly about possible job openings. Directories to consult for the names and addresses of oil companies are U.S.A. Oil Industry or the Time Oil and Gas Directory. Information may also be available through the local office of state employment services. Graduates of technical training programs may find assistance in locating employment through the placement office at their schools.
Roustabouts usually are hired in the field by the maintenance superintendent or by a local company representative. Many roustabouts learn their skills on the job by working under the supervision of experienced workers. Roustabouts with no previous experience are considered “hands” who learn by helping the lead roustabout and crew. They begin with simple jobs, like unloading trucks, and gradually take on more complicated work. As they progress, they learn about oil field operations and equipment, safety practices, and maintenance procedures for the machinery.
To learn the skills they need, some newly hired roustabouts take courses at junior colleges or self-study courses such as those offered by the University of Texas at Austin. Some employers, particularly the major oil companies, help pay for job-related courses that employees take during their own time. Because the turnover rate among roustabouts is fairly high, however, employers are usually reluctant to invest a great deal in specialized training for beginning workers.
A job as a roustabout is usually an entry-level position. To advance, roustabouts will need to prove that they can do the work; advancement to a variety of other jobs comes with experience.
Roustabouts who are part of maintenance and operation crews may advance to such positions as switcher, gauger, pumper, or lease operator. Those with proven leadership abilities may eventually become chief operators or maintenance superintendents. Roustabouts who are on drilling crews may advance to become roughnecks, floor hands, or rotary helpers, and, later, derrick operators, drillers, and tool pushers, who are in charge of one or more drilling rigs; they also might become engineering technicians. All of these positions represent a special set of responsibilities in a complex operation.
Some companies run their own training programs offering employees the opportunity to take specialized courses in welding, electricity, and other craft areas; roustabouts who participate in such courses may be prepared to advance into such jobs as welders, electricians, pipefitters, and other craftworkers.
The earnings of roustabouts vary depending on the branch of the industry they work in, the region of the country, the hours they work, and other factors. Offshore workers generally earn more than on-shore, and roustabouts who work for oil companies generally earn more than those who work for drilling contractors.
Some beginning salaries are on a par with minimum wage, according to the Association of Energy Service Companies. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the mean annual salary of roustabouts was $26,210 in 2004. Salaries ranged from about $15,000 to $35,000 annually. Generally, roustabouts receive time and a half for overtime; conversely, employers do not pay them if they finish early during a slow time. Those who work away from home receive additional “sub pay” plus reimbursement for their hotel and other expenses.
Benefits and medical coverage are comparable to other manual laborers.
Roustabouts work in and around oil fields, on drilling platforms in oceans, on pipelines that transport oil or gas long distances, and at facilities that capture and distribute natural gas. In onshore oil fields or on ocean platforms, roustabouts work outside in all types of weather. On offshore rigs and platforms, they can experience strong ocean currents, violent storms, and bitterly cold winds. Workers in oil fields on shore may have to contend with extremely hot or cold weather, dust, or insects.
Roustabouts on offshore drilling rigs generally work 12-hour days, seven days a week. After seven days on, they usually get seven days off, although some crews may have to work two to four weeks at a stretch, followed by an equal amount of time off. Workers generally stay on the ocean platform during their whole work shift and return to shore via helicopter or crew boat. It is not unusual for offshore roustabouts to live hundreds of miles from the ocean platform where they work.
In onshore oil fields, roustabouts are more likely to work five-day, 40-hour weeks, although this is not always the case, especially during a “boom.” Some roustabouts average between 120 and 130 hours in a two-week pay period. Roustabouts may travel anywhere from a half-mile away to 100 or more miles away to a work site. They take short lunch and other breaks depending on how busy the crew is. The end of the day might come early in the afternoon or in the middle of the night. Many drilling operations work around the clock until either discovering oil or abandoning the location as a dry hole. This requires shifts of workers every day of the week.
Being a roustabout can be stressful due to the long hours and time away from home, family, and friends. Some roustabouts work away from home one to three weeks at a time with only a few days off.
Roustabouts’ work is strenuous and potentially dangerous, especially on open-sea drilling platforms. They lift heavy materials and equipment and frequently must bend, stoop, and climb. They have to use caution to avoid falling off derricks and other high places, as well as injuries from being hit by falling objects. They are subject to cuts, scrapes, and sore or strained muscles. Because fire is a hazard around oil operations, roustabouts and other workers must be trained in firefighting and be ready to respond to emergencies.
Roustabouts who work on drilling crews can expect to move from place to place, since drilling at a site may be completed in a few weeks or months. If they are working at a site that is producing oil, they usually remain there for longer periods of time.
Roustabout Career Outlook
The number of jobs in the oil and gas industry is expected to decline by 6 percent through 2014. The fluctuating prices of oil and natural gas have greatly affected employment in this industry. When oil and gas prices rise sharply, companies invest more money in new technology and employees in order to increase their profits. When oil and gas prices fall, companies may be less inclined to expand domestic and international exploration and production of oil and gas, thus decreasing the number of jobs available.
This industry is greatly affected by environmental concerns, especially when drilling and exploring are limited in sensitive or federally protected areas. In addition, many companies have moved drilling and exploration to locations outside of the United States, which decreases the number of workers needed in this country. However, companies are likely to continue to restructure and look for cost-effective technology that permits new drilling abroad and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, which would provide jobs for U.S. workers.
Despite its difficulties, the oil industry still plays an important role in the economy and employment. Oil and gas will continue to be primary energy sources well into the next century. While few new jobs for roustabouts are expected to develop, they always will be needed, and there will be some openings, as turnover is high among roustabouts, especially in offshore drilling. The work is difficult and dirty enough that many people stay in the job only a short time. The need to replace workers who leave will account for nearly all job openings. Workers who have experience or formal training in the field will have the best chance of being hired.