Presented by AKOG
Designing video games sounds like a fantasy job -- the kind that, if you’re lucky enough to get, you would do anything to keep.
So why did Jeff Connelly walk away from a 13-year career developing games for brands like Disney, Sony and Microsoft to become a petroleum engineer on Alaska’s North Slope?
“Video games are fun for sure, but it ends up being just like any job, really,” Connelly said. “I was getting a little burned out on it.”
At 38, Connelly went back to college and earned a degree in petroleum engineering, becoming one of the thousands of Alaskans employed in the state’s oil and gas industry.
From city streets to remote tundra
The oil and gas industry directly employed 9,930 Alaska residents in 2018 (the latest year for which resident data could be calculated), according to a 2020 McDowell Group report. Those residents earned a total of $1.441 billion in wages, with many of those jobs paying well over the median household income of $76,715.
Of course, no job is perfect in every way, but for Connelly, the prospects were attractive enough to walk away from what some would consider a dream career.
Connelly completed his degree and joined ConocoPhillips as a coil tubing drilling engineer in 2015. He then transitioned into a “company man” role on the North Slope, overseeing operations for all wells drilled by the coiled tubing rig. For three years he worked a “hitch” on the Slope, flying up to the Kuparuk Operating Center for two weeks at a time.
“The people up there are so great,” Connelly said. “They almost become family because you live half your life with them.”
As a video game developer, Connelly worked out of a studio in downtown Seattle. Now his work takes him all over the North Slope of Alaska.
“We would commute every morning in a pickup truck out to the rig,” said Connelly, who transitioned to an “in-town” role in Anchorage earlier this year. “We could be anywhere within the Kuparuk field at any given time. The rig may as well be on Mars.”
While Connelly’s mid-career shift into petroleum engineering isn’t the norm, there’s no one typical journey to the oilfield.
“That was my path in, but that’s not the only path in,” Connelly said. He’s worked with plenty of college-educated geologists and engineers, but also people who worked their way up through trades, apprenticeships and oilfield services companies.
“They’re good paying jobs,” Connelly said. “There’s a lot of responsibility, and I think there’s a lot of reward to go with that as well.”
Meeting challenges head-on, and enjoying them
Susan Card’s journey to the North Slope started with an insightful educator.
“I had an amazing chemistry teacher in high school,” Card said. “I told her, ‘I want to be a chemist.’ She goes, ‘You don’t have the personality to be a chemist who sits alone in a lab all day. Why don’t you be a chemical engineer instead?’ I had no idea what a chemical engineer did, but I picked it and that was that.”
Alaska was on Card’s mind by the time she graduated from high school, and once she figured out that she could put her engineering skills to work in the state’s oil industry, that became her objective.
One thing Card didn’t realize as a teenager was that she could improve her chances by enrolling at a college where Alaska oil producers target their recruiting efforts. By the time she learned about college recruiting programs, she was already enrolled at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, an affordable school near home.
“I’m not sure how much it would have changed,” she said. “We weren’t going to send me to Texas A&M or Colorado School of Mines, because there was no money for that kind of shenanigans.”
Instead, Card worked her way up through chemical refining, starting with a small engineering firm in Salt Lake City, then a refining job in central Washington, then Butte, Montana. In 1998, she secured a job with an Alaska oilfield services company, allowing her to finally make Alaska home. She worked in engineering firms, spent some time at Unocal, and ultimately settled at ConocoPhillips, where she is a facilities engineer.
“When I got here, I had to learn a lot more about mechanical engineering than I expected,” Card said. “Was that a challenge? Yeah, but it was a fun challenge. It was interesting. Those are things I enjoy.”
Card also overcame a challenge she didn’t even realize she faced: attention deficit disorder. It wasn’t widely recognized when she was growing up, but when she was diagnosed as an adult, it explained a lot about the way her mind works.
“I never memorized my multiplication tables,” Card said. “I can’t. I tried. My memory is poor. I write things down and I figure it out.”
Working things out by hand started as a coping mechanism, but Card said it has ultimately helped her in her chosen career.
“Memorization is very difficult for me, so I was able to derive and figure things out” by writing them down, she said. “I actually think that makes me a better engineer.”
That sense of accomplishment that comes from solving a problem is a source of camaraderie for Card and her colleagues in Kuparuk.
“These people on the North Slope all feel really good when we get things done,” Card said. “It feels amazing when you get work done or you bring on a new well or you de-bottleneck something or you make something safer.”
‘You never know where you’re going to end up’
Card and Connelly are both engineers, but their chosen field is just one of countless roads into the resource industry.
For Kim Kersten, chief of staff to the president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the path to a career in oil and gas led through some unexpected places -- the world of finance and Portland, Oregon.
Kersten grew up in North Pole and earned an accounting degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, after which she decided to get a taste of life Outside. After four years working in finance in Portland, she was ready to come home. She applied for a job with Alyeska and moved to Anchorage.
“Growing up in Alaska, especially if you’re in the Interior of the state, the pipeline’s so visible,” Kersten said. “I actually always wanted to work for the pipeline.”
Kersten realized in her first job after college that accounting wasn’t really for her.
“I needed to do something different and try something different,” she said. At Alyeska, she’s had the opportunity to work in finance, supply chain management, leadership and administration: “I just kept applying for things because I wanted to try something new and different.”
While the idea of working in the resource industry might conjure images of hard hats and oil rigs, in reality, the range of career options attracts Alaskans of all kinds, from laborers to scientists to businesspeople.
“The paths that have led people here are all so different,” Kersten said. “We have anybody from me as an accountant to human resources-type positions. You also have the technicians and the operations folks. It’s very diverse.”
Although Kersten isn’t working in the field for which she went to college, she’s a big proponent of education as an avenue to expand career options -- even if you end up ruling them out.
“The more education you can get, the better,” Kersten said. “Out of my education, I’ve kind of learned what I don’t want to do.”
Plus, she added, when you approach your career with an open mind: “You never know where you’re going to end up. It’s fun to just roll with it.”
Different paths, shared values
While their journeys to oil and gas were different, Card, Connelly and Kersten all share some core beliefs about their industry.
First, work ethic really matters, no matter what kind of job you do.
“You’re either going to have to work hard in school with your brain or you’re going to have to work hard physically with your body,” Card said.
Sometimes, she added, working hard also means having patience and a willingness to learn how to operate effectively within your organization.
“The companies are so big, you have to plan your projects really far in advance,” she said. “If you come up with a solution, it takes a budget cycle or two to get it approved. Changes don’t happen quickly. You have to stick with it.”
Second, more education is never a bad thing, whether it’s taking tougher classes in high school, pursuing a college degree, or seeking out technical training programs.
“Anything you can do to strengthen your science, your technology, engineering and math is a good thing,” Connelly said. “Don’t be intimidated by math. Everybody can love math.”
Third -- and perhaps most critically -- all three express a deep appreciation for their colleagues and value the working relationships they have developed. Card’s job, for example, involves communicating with operators and craftspeople in her facility as well as engineers and experts who may work on the Slope or in Anchorage, so collaboration is critical.
“When they see a problem, I have to work with them to figure out what is causing the problem so we can get to the root of the issue and fix it correctly,” Card said. “If I can solve a problem in a way that makes things easier for either of those two groups, that’s the way to resolve it.”
In work as demanding and high-stakes as oil production, camaraderie makes a big difference.
“If you can keep a positive attitude, it just goes so far up there,” Connelly said. “It’s a hard job, but it’s supposed to be fun. You’re going to do your best work if you’re happy.”
And yes -- five years into his oil and gas career, Connelly is, indeed, happy with his change in direction.
“I think there’s a place for just about anybody if they have a desire to work in this industry,” Connelly said. “Take it from a guy who used to make video games.”
AKOG is a diverse community of Alaskans who are proud to work in the oil and gas industry. Established for industry employees, by industry employees, AKOG’s goal is to share our pride in what we do with our friends and neighbors.
This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with AKOG. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.