Skip to main Content
Business/Economy

Meet three Alaska oil field workers trying to regain their footing after being laid off

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 7, 2016

The prolonged oil price slump that has forced producers to shelve projects and mothball drilling rigs has led to hundreds of layoffs in Alaska's petroleum industry since the spring of 2015. Economists at the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development now predict a total loss of more than 2,000 good-paying jobs by the end of this year.

The reductions have led to the biggest slowdown in the Alaska oil patch in years. The changes are reshaping lives as former employees look for work in new industries and struggling families ponder their next steps.

To put a face on the losses, the Alaska Dispatch News recently asked three laid-off workers to share their stories.

Bronn Salmon

Bronn Salmon lost his job in February as a well service technician in Prudhoe Bay.

He said things have gotten so tough on the North Slope that when he applied recently for a summer job, he found himself competing against more than 200 other applicants. He was one of the lucky 25 who got a follow-up interview with CCI Industrial Services, which maintains pipelines and other facilities in the oil patch.

"There's a whole lot of people out of work and not a lot of jobs," said Salmon, who on Friday was still waiting to hear back from CCI about the job.

Salmon, 49, had been making $85,000 a year working two-week rotations on the North Slope for CH2M Hill. He helped prepare well sites before specialized rigs arrived to boost oil production. Now he's desperately looking for new work and thinking about going back to college to become a teacher.

His wife, Jodi, monitors lunches at Talkeetna Elementary School. But starting in May, her paychecks will end for the summer, and his $400 weekly unemployment checks won't go far.

"At that point, things are going to get pretty tough," he said.

Salmon saw the storm clouds gathering in the industry late last year when CH2M Hill didn't hire the dozens of extra drivers who are normally needed for the winter season, when exploration projects usually ramp up and ice roads are built to access prospects on the snow-covered tundra.

Oil field support companies were starting to lay off workers, too, such as Schlumberger and Halliburton.

But Salmon was briefly reassured in January. An official from BP, which operates the giant Prudhoe Bay field, let companies know production levels would remain the same and workers weren't being cut.

"Then, whammo," he said; the cuts came weeks later. "There were probably two hitches in January where work was as slow as I'd ever seen it."

About 170 co-workers also lost their jobs, he said, victims of the "trickle-down effect" that hits contracting companies when oil producers start mothballing drilling rigs and other production equipment.

Salmon started working at Prudhoe Bay in 2008, leaving an information-technology career that began after being discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps. He was living in Talkeetna, but tired of commuting to Anchorage for his job at the Alaska Heart Institute.

When a friend suggested he work on the Slope, he got his commercial driver's license and landed a job driving trucks for Schlumberger Ltd. He loved the schedule, two weeks working in the oil fields and two weeks with his kids at home.

He'd like to keep working on the Slope, but the prospects for new work look dim. One possibility is returning to the information-technology industry, but that might mean leaving Talkeetna, a town his family loves.

"It stinks having to start over," he said. "I may have to if things don't improve on the Slope, and it doesn't look now like they will."

Candy Albin

Candy Albin came to Alaska six years ago with her son, and then-husband, seeking job opportunities since Michigan's auto industry was struggling through the economic crash at the time.

Her husband had quit his job as a mechanic for General Motors in Michigan, but landed a job in Alaska doing similar work. She later got a job at a company involved in Shell's drilling effort off the Arctic coast. They lived in Fairbanks.

The couple divorced two years ago but things were going fine for Albin until Shell announced in September it would stop exploring for oil in the Chukchi Sea.

The oil giant's pullout cost hundreds of people their jobs across the state, including Albin's. She had worked as a paramedic on the Harvey Champion, a 300-foot supply vessel that delivered supplies from Dutch Harbor to the drilling site in the Chukchi.

Since losing the $72,000-a-year job in October, she's gone through bankruptcy to eliminate her credit card debt, and expects to lose the house she owns in Fairbanks.

"We were economic refugees to Alaska six years ago, and now I'm an economic victim in Alaska," she said.

Albin, 39, was among the dozens of paramedics and physician assistants working for Beacon Occupational Health and Safety Services, an Alaska-based company that provided medical support on Shell's rigs.

After the paychecks ended, she collected $394 a week in unemployment checks, barely enough to pay for food and utilities for herself and her son, Zachary, 13. But the assistance ended in late April, after six months. She's now half a year behind on her mortgage — the monthly payments are $1,700 — and doesn't see how she'll ever be able to pay it back.

"I've resigned myself to the fact that I'll lose it," she said of her house.

Because she overpaid for the house — she bought it more than a year ago — she won't be able to sell it for a profit, she said. As a result, she's not planning to leave until the mortgage company forces her out, a process that could take up to two years.

Classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are keeping her focused. She enrolled there after she lost her job to improve her employment prospects in the medical field. She's thinking about going into nursing, a field with openings statewide, she said.

Finding a new job has been tough. She's applied for 60 jobs and found no permanent work. But she has summer employment lined up starting in mid-May — as a bear guard for Beacon at a remote site.

"I have $30 to live on for the next eight days," she said on Friday.

She's trying to keep her mind on daily tasks.

"It's hard to think about the entire picture all at once, because you get really depressed," she said.

Christopher Bauer

Christopher Bauer made national news in 2014 when KTUU-Channel 2 did a quirky story about the "urban musher" from Anchorage who made his coffee run along sidewalks, mushing his dog team to the cafe because he didn't own a dog truck.

But a year later Bauer had given away all his dogs except one after he took a job on the North Slope that required three-week rotations, too long to leave the team in someone else's care.

The timing was terrible. Weeks after getting rid of the dog team, the job ended.

Now Bauer is turning things around. The first-generation musher has a new job in Fairbanks. He also plans to rebuild his dog team, starting with Nikki, a husky and the one dog he kept.

"I'm chasing the dog dream," said Bauer, 36.

Bauer was a double victim of the plunging price of oil.

The first job loss came when he worked for a Shell subcontractor in the summer of 2015, shortly before Shell announced it would stop drilling for oil in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. Based in Shell's Anchorage offices, Bauer coordinated travel for workers across the state, making $59,000 a year.

After that job ended, Bauer found work with Norcon Construction in January. The industrial construction firm owned by CH2M Hill maintains wellheads, pipes and other equipment in the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.

That's the job that led him to break up his dog team. He sold some dogs to other mushers and gave others away. At work, he was a logistics apprentice, coordinating shipments of materials, making $51,000 a year.

But instead of lasting two years as he expected, the job was done in three weeks.

About 30 co-workers also lost their jobs during that short stint, after oil producers began canceling projects. The reductions were all anyone could talk about on the Slope. "You'd wake up in the morning and it'd be the first thing you'd hear," he said.

Bauer didn't sit around for long.

In a matter of weeks, he loaded up his Jeep and moved to Fairbanks, giving himself 30 days to get a job or return to Anchorage. The employment prospects looked better there and the winter promised more snow for mushing.

In March, his luck changed when he was hired to handle administrative tasks at AFF American Relocation Services, a company that focuses on moving soldiers between bases.

But Bauer didn't stop looking for work. In early May, he accepted a better-paying job as an assistant manager at Alaska Industrial Hardware.

"It's a huge change," he said.

Now, Bauer is living in a cabin with an outhouse and trying to save money to buy land in Fairbanks in the next couple of years, to support his next dog team. In the meantime, he's planning to do volunteer mushing at Noble Paws, a group that gives people with disabilities a chance to mush.

A U.S. Air Force veteran, Bauer is also working on a business plan for a consulting company that would help businesses ship products and people more efficiently around the state.

"I want to stay in Alaska and help it grow," he said.

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments