A History of Labour – Part II

Welcome to the Oil Patch – Part 1 (Year 1 AD – After Degree)

Well after doing the service industry job and getting promoted to the first rung of the ladder I left my prospects in to seek out an engineering job.  Yet oddly enough the job found me.

My university offered a service where they would keep your resume on file for a period of time after you graduate.  Then some employers would come around and look through the stack to fill entry level positions.  So while I didn’t apply for the job in question, I did attend the interview when I was called in …regardless of the fact I didn’t have the slightest clue what the hell a ‘Wireline Engineer’ did exactly.

I went into the interview nervous as hell but somehow didn’t manage to make complete ass of myself.  They called back in just two days and offered me a job and even then I only had the vaguest idea of what the position involved.  I knew the company was a wireline service company which had something to do with oil and gas production, but otherwise I was fairly damn clueless going in.

On top of this I was asked to pick which division I wanted to work for: cased hole or open hole.  They could have offered me the choice between red or blue for that that meant to me.  The recruiter summed it up as follows: open hole tends to make more and works with radioactive sources but also does more round the clock work.  Case hole is more daytime work and works with explosives.  Holy crap?!?! Nuclear sources…I like my DNA just were it is thank you very much I will take the explosives and more daylight hours.  Thanks to my previous job I knew I wasn’t a big fan of working late at night.

This apparently is fairly common for this industry, so they hire a bunch of potential candidates and put them through a ‘school’ teaching them the core of the work involved.  Then turn them loose to shadow an experienced guy for a few months to learn the ropes.  The entire process takes anywhere from 6 to 8 months.

The school part I did well at after all when you have been doing that as your main job for four years.  I also finally learned a bit out what the hell I would be doing finally.  For those not familiar with the oil and gas industry I will do a brief overview of this part of it.

Oil and gas rigs come in two main types: drilling and service.  Drilling rigs are the ones the drill the oil and gas well initially.  After they reach their expected target depth, they bring in an open hole wireline crew to run some high tech tools to provide the geologists back in head office with data on the newly drilled hole buy running various tools on the end of long wire down the hole.  Hence the term: wireline.  That data they collect is termed the log, which is then used when they want to put that new well into production.

Once the metal pipe is put into the newly drilled well, it is now a ‘cased hole’.  Any work done at this point is usually done by a service rig including bring in a case hole wireline crew to perforate (ie: blow up with explosives) small holes in the desired formation to start production of the natural gas or oil.  Then once that formation stopped producing enough they would cement that off and proceed to blow up the next highest formation and repeat.  So I blew holes in the ground typically 1 or more kilometers underground.  Sounds exciting expect for at the surface if you do your job right all you notice if you wire line bounce up a down slightly after the explosion.

Now you need to understand the entire oil and gas industry in Alberta…they all wanted it done yesterday.  Demanding clients would be a general understatement, not to mention anything of my bosses as well.  Then on top of it all when an engineer is deemed competent you also get to run your own truck with two operations assigned to you.  I got minions!  Expect they were usually several decades older than me and hated me at first sight.  Why? Well because not all the trucks were run by actual engineers, some of the operators learned enough over the years to get promoted.  So when I 23 year old fresh out of university kid takes what you thought you had a shot at for a job it tends not to go well.  Then on top of this I had a on call cycle I worked 15 days on and then had 6 off in a row.

The hours of work during my days on were nothing but insanity.  I mean I literally worked once just over 24 hours straight with no sleep and we routinely worked 15+ hour days.  Then on top of that I would also get paged during the night to suddenly show up at work in the next few hours even in the middle of the night.  Why?  Well because you had to go the shop to load up the truck with the equipment needed, drive usually a few hours to the job site, wait for the rig to be ready for you, do the job (finally!) and then go back to the shop and clean up everything so the truck was ready for the next run.  Often we didn’t even come back to the city, they would direct us to another job directly and then ship out the extra equipment needed with a delivery service.

Aside: Particular astute people might ask about labour laws and my employer can’t do that to me.   In progressive and enlightened societies you would be correct, but in Alberta in that job I was exempt for those laws.  Heck even my operators had work around clauses for hours driven.  Alberta sold its soul and people to the Oil and Gas industry years ago.

Ironically I had learned this pace was actually an improvement.  Management had finally figured out that letting us sleep was actually saving them money periodically since we didn’t roll over our trucks which would then cost at a minimum $1,000,000 to fix.  Before that rollovers from drivers falling asleep had been a fairly big issue.  See that nice people I worked for?

So it didn’t entire surprise me when I learned from one of the nicer operators that in fact when you worked out all the math because of the insane hours we routinely put in we only earned like $12 to $14/hour.  So in theory I was well paid for what I did, but in fact I had no life.

In fact during my first day off, I would typically spend it napping/sleeping to achieve the faint feeling of having caught up on my sleep.  Then I would decompress a bit over day two off and finally enjoy a bit of life.  Perhaps my only saving grace during this particular form of employment torture was the fact my wife had a three day on and three day off schedule so at some point during my days off we would get three days together.

Then on top of this I learned after getting there that because of the low amount of actually engineering work I was doing that my time working at this company would only count for half credits towards getting my actual professional engineer status…yes, I would need to put in not just four years of work experience at this employer but eight instead.  This place was starting to sound like a prison sentence.

Perhaps one of the saving graces of this job was their were upgrading the computers used to do the logging work we did which had the potential to cut the amount of time we were onsite in half (in some cases).  I got to play around with the new system since I actually could understand working in a Linux environment with four desktops doing four different things at once.  Most of the older operators who had been promoted to running their own truck were having problems wrapping their heads around the new technology.

Yet after a while I realized I had a problem.  My days off were no longer about a life, it was get some sleep, see my wife for a bit, watch a tonne of TV and movies since I had no energy for anything else and then go back to work.  Then repeat.  I actually at this point understand the mindless existence of the average consumer since I was living it (but I won’t consider it actual life, but rather a pale imitation half life at best).

Then I started to hit a brick wall. I was no longer enjoying my last day off prior to going back to being on call.  I started to get physically ill each time thinking about going back to work.  Yes like stomach in knots and headaches.  In hindsight, this was an obvious sight of stress overload and being burnt out, but at the time I was young and stupid and it took a few cycles of this for me to start to realize this was a problem.

The straw that broke my back was working on one job we had an accident and because of my actions one of my operators almost got seriously injured.  That was my wake up call.  I couldn’t justify this insanity any longer.  I had no job lined up (like how? I couldn’t look for a job when I worked all the time).

So I walked into my manager’s office with my letter of resignation in hand.

“I’m quitting.” I said.

“Why?” They asked.

“The real reason or what’s on the letter.”

“The real reason.”

Even I wasn’t stupid enough to tell them the job was insane…hello I needed a reference from this lunatics still.  So I had already planned for this one and said “I like being married more than my job.”

They nodded in understanding.  Divorces among my co-worker were so common it wasn’t even funny and in fact my relationship with my wife was getting strained.

Then they surprised me by adding, “Before you hand that letter over go see the training division next door.”

“Um, ok.” I replied.

Then I found out they needed someone who understand the new computer system to re-write the manuals and so I ended up with a job transfer.  I never did submit that resignation letter.

Lessons Learned

  •  You body and mind do have an upper limit of hours work and stress you can handle.  It’s much higher than you would think.
  • Pay doesn’t always matter.  Consider the hourly rate of pay when picking or keeping a job.
  • You should never let yourself keep a job you hate.  It doesn’t matter the pay if you HATE your job.
  • The good news about this job is set out a whole series of things to avoid the future, so while it sucked it was extremely useful to find all this out early in my career.

Financial Progress

  • I didn’t keep good records at this point in my life, but I can say I didn’t save much or pay down much debt.  I was spending a fair bit in an attempt to cope with my job.
  • The good news was I did sign up for the group RRSP and took the free money that went into it.

 

2 thoughts on “A History of Labour – Part II”

  1. Former Open-Hole Wireline Engineer here. This post should be required reading for anyone considering a job in wireline. It really is an insane job. Glad to know I wasn’t the only one who would feel anxious and ill before returning to work.

  2. @Garret – Shared pain is remarkable bonding thing…I’m almost surprised there is a support group for ex-wireline engineers to help on the recovery. Thanks for letting me know I wasn’t the only one.

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