Forget Peak Oil, Time To Worry About Peak Oil Labor

EconMatters's picture

By EconMatters

In a recent working paper, researchers at the the IMF (International Monetary Fund) attempt to reconcile the Peak Oil debate that whether resource constraints will dictate the future of oil output and prices, or advance in technology motivated by high oil price would eventually provide a solution to more production, as well as higher oil prices. 


An economic model was developed incorporating both views, and identified two biggest factors contributing to the recent run-up in oil prices:

  1. Relative price insensitivity on the supply side - We have to point out that this IMF observation is partly due to oil production increase/decrease typically significantly lags the oil price movement.   
  2. "Shocks to excess demand for goods and to demand for oil" due to the recent phenomenal growth from countries like China and India. 

The paper also gives out this dire warning:

"....our prediction of small further increases in world oil production comes at the expense of anear doubling, permanently, of real oil prices over the coming decade. This is uncharted territory for the world economy...."

In general, various forecasts by different agencies seem to agree that world oil production will likely continue to have small increases with producers venturing out to exploit the more difficult and challenging formation.


However, what most forecasts as well as the IMF paper did not discuss is the scarce human capital that's already seriously plaguing the oil industry, which could have serious implication in the future oil production and technology development.


With the aging and retirement of the boomer generations that began their careers in the late 1970s (see chart below), the oil industry is suffering an acute shortage of experienced skilled professionals.  


Chart Source: Schlumberger presentation, March 1, 2012


This will only add to the cost of an oil barrel and become very disruptive (see graph below) as oil projects are getting more complex, more difficult and expensive to execute. 

Chart Source: Schlumberger presentation, March 1, 2012 


A separate study by the Petroleum Human Resources Council estimates about 39,000 workers will be needed in Canada alone to replace those who are expected to retire before 2020 just to maintain the status quo.  The industry could need as many as 130,000 new hires by the end of the decade with more bullish oil and gas prices.


Already at least one analyst firm is scaling back its drilling activity forecast for 2012, in part because there aren't enough workers who can drill big, complicated wells.  For now, NES Global Talent sees a depletion of skilled workers in oil and gas fields in the United States, Great Britain and Australia, three of the busiest oil and gas regions, will become a major problem.


Schlumberger, the largest oilfield services company in the world, sees significant negative effect from peak oil labor manifesting by 2015, a short three years from now, with increasing inexperienced oil professionals, and that the talent problem will only get worse.


For now, most forecasts expect crude prices would remain high in 2012, mostly due to the Iran tension.  Meanwhile, OPEC just revised its 2012 world oil demand outlook slightly upwards citing a stable US economy and the shutdown of nuclear plants in Japan.  So if the IMF prediction comes true, it seems the peak oil labor could be just enough to tip the scale for doubling in oil price scenario a lot sooner than year 2022.


The future will not be easy.


Further Reading - Another Oil Price Shock, Another Global Recession?


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ian807's picture

The oil companies in Houston laid off their engineering staff during the oil crash of the eighties. Top managment thought engineers were simple commodities, like pork bellies or wheat. They'd buy more when needed. Hasn't been working for them.

As one poster pointed out, there's no labor shortage that can't be solved with more money. The Shells and BPs of the world just need to suck it up, hire older, skilled engineers, show the kids there's money to be made, and do all the things they haven't been doing. The problem is trivially solvable, assuming you're not a half-witted MBA who's detached from the real world.

bankruptcylawyer's picture

but cant' we just use solar power and unicorn farts?


oldmanagain's picture

The labor issue may or may not become crucial. A decline in oil production would sensibly project at less employment in that field.

The situation on oil is more serious than indicated in the article. It is not just that the world cannot produce enough oil for the demand forecast but that oil produced will decline in the coming years. Regardless of price.  Most commodities are in the same boat. Lagging productive potential versus world population and demand growth.


The most important long term factor in the markets is the headwind of inadequate natural and crop resources. This will force pricing out of demand until........

It is idiotic for so many to think a political theory, already having failed, will save us. Same goes for econ theory, particularly Austrian hogwash. All current theories implicitly imply a horn of plenty at modest prices forever.

flacorps's picture

How about something practical, with the theory needing to be worked out later:

Ancient man knew nothing of the theory of combustion, but fire worked just fine regardless.

crawldaddy's picture

False narrative. Every industry with an aging workforce can say this bullshit. If these guys have had the jobs all this time, how is someone suppose to get expereince besides them?  magic? They will retire, a new crop will come up and guess what, after a short while.. they will be experienced.

They have said the same thing so many times and it such crap. Guess what if one human can do it, there is another million out there given the chance can do it as well. 

dirtbagger's picture

Partly correct.  Production and drilling workers can be trained and replaced fairly readily.  It is a much more difficult to replace exploration staff that make the decisions of what land to lease and where to drill.  Geophysics and oil engineering is as much AN ART as A SCIENCE and takes at least a decade of field work on properties to learn how to make good exploratory and production drilling decisions. 

There was a 20 year recession in mining and oil from the early 80's up to about 2001.   Few professionals were hired and now the bulk of the staff is in there mid-sixties and getting ready to retire.  Here in Nevada, senior geologists and mining engineers are being offered out-sized salaries and bonuses to keep working.

Tortuga's picture

You're right except, there is a MBA in HR screening the another million applications for 5 years experience, in the job description but might consider them for an entry level position for, say, $9.50 hr, no relocation expenses allocated and oh, there are no houses for rent or sale in the area for less than $4k a month or $million and you have to furnish your required hard hat and steel toed shoes.

bbaez's picture

Beg to differ Crawl

Roughneck Work is one of the most dangerous and labourus occupations out there so today's generation is not embracing it willingly

Plus all of the new drilling techniques have created new and bigger plays throughout the country creating a much bigger demand for experienced and qualified hands

The work takes place in outdoor extremes such 130 degree heat or subzero degree cold so its not the best of conditions

There is a major deficit in talent coming and its not the job most teaans look forward to

billsykes's picture

Pig work is brutal, even those guys at 20 yrs old working 12 hour days find it tough- the stats on injuries and deaths are sky high- its super dangerous and getting 5k for disability on a thumb loss is peanuts.

proLiberty's picture

"....our prediction of small further increases in world oil production comes at the expense of anear doubling, permanently, of real oil prices over the coming decade. This is uncharted territory for the world economy...."


This hyperbolic preduction ignores substitutes like coal-to-liquids that have a break-even cost that is not far above the current price for oil.

billsykes's picture

Really getting back the OIL personnel shortage- there is no shortage, its just employers are so picky that the useless HR can only hire with degrees and yrs of experience and don't want 50+ yr olds because they question typical corporate idiocy or do not want to be in buttfuck Saskatchewan or north dakota paying NYC type rent. And this excludes the younger guys and then they don't really want to be educated guys stuck in a town with rig pigs, hookers and blow.

All labor shortages can be solved with money.


There is never a shortage of anything or anyone if you pay enough. Or if corporations looked beyond the Q then they would set up training programs, to train new workers their way under the guidance of one of these older workers- the old guys would stick around longer, the young because this is a company that fostered their career.

Oils sands are almost 100% Chinese owned and they have no labor shortage.


BooMushroom's picture
Or if corporations looked beyond the Q then they would set up training programs, to train new workers their way under the guidance of one of these older workers- the old guys would stick around longer, the young because this is a company that fostered their career.

This. Everyone complains of the dearth of experienced workers, and nobody is hiring trainees or apprentices.

TradingTroll's picture

"Oils sands are almost 100% Chinese owned and they have no labor shortage."


Here in Vancouver, where I ran one of the most popular oil sands blogs in 2006-08, I call BS. Where is your proof?


Many of the biggest projects are inside public companies that are NOT 'almost 100% Chinese'. eg. Suncor (SU), Conoco (COP), Nexen (NXY), Statoil (STO) etc.



billsykes's picture

Meant to say Foreign owned;

Oil Sands And Foreign Money: ForestEthics Says Foreign Money Dominates Oil Patch

The quoted 71% foreign owned is actually a lot higher as the majority are public companies- and those 71% stats are just 100% foreign owned not a domestic public company that is 50% foreign owned.

But the fact is China is really buying up a lot of oil companies and projects in Canada- foreign money runs the country and it's natural to take your own citizens into the companies you buy. Oil is commodity, not a manufacturing or sales type company where domestic labour is needed.

I always find it funny when Canadians, even guys in Alberta say there is no foreign interest here, meanwhile bank of china retail branch opens up in Calgary so Chinese can cash their paychecks.

With no real digging at all;

"Sinopec made China’s second-largest investment in North America last year 2011, paying US$4.65-billion for a 9.03% slice of Syncrude Canada Ltd., the No. 2 oil sands operation. CNPC invested $1.9-billion in two oil sands last February. "

"PetroChina from Calgary-based Athabasca Oil Sands Corp."

"China Opti Canada Inc. for $2.1 billion US."

"Penn West Energy Trust - Chinese"

"Chinese own 50 per cent stake in Total E&P Canada's Northern Lights project."

"PTT Exploration and Production(Thailand),  bought a 40 per cent stake in Norway-based Statoil's largely undeveloped holdings in northern Alberta for US$2.28 billion."


You may call BS, but you have your head in the sand, or you don't know how business works-
hint look up V.I.E's (variable interest entities) in China and how American companies can buy stuff the Chinese  govt says foreign owners  cannot.  money+power= no rules.

Doesn't really take much to cover up ownership especially in Canada (you can even do it blatantly, look at that mobile phone company that is majority foreign owned prior to all the press)



Metalredneck's picture

Having been raised in the oil-patch area of Alberta, and having relatives still in the shit, I don't believe this at all.  Maybe in the refinery & petrochem end, but not in the extraction & "send it cheap to the Yanks" end.

orangegeek's picture

Nevermind peak oil or peak oil labor.


IMF should report on peak government - the bloated systems around the work that are sucking the life out of the private sector.



crawldaddy's picture

oh please, what a load of shit. Govt job are being cut as we speak, and have been for the last few years.  Are things magically better ?  no. 

Govt jobs isnt the problem, the problem is governments picking the winners in loser in the private sector that is the problem. Its govt regulators NOT doing their jobs and letting private firms go wild that IS the problem.


Govt is the problem, just not in the way you think it is.

Flakmeister's picture

The private sector was consumed from the bottom up in an orgy of greed....

AnAnonymous's picture

Another consequence of specialization as brought to you by US citizen economics.

This said, it is not an issue. At the moment, availability of highly trained, highly experienced (therefore the perfect choice for division of labour) explains that people do not wish to jeopardize on young blood.

Long term career, forty years or so, makes it hard to have natural succession playing through.

A generations of workers getting to work at 25, getting child by 30, and working up to 65 are a mess to allow the next generation to enter the work market.

By the time their children are 25, they are only 55, 30 years of experience under the belt, ten years to go, easily outdo their younger breed.

Wages, salaries. Contrary to what it implies in the comment sections, it does not play much.

Securing your job position matters much more than the pay and you do that by growing valuable to your hirer.

All these technological fields are somehow stalling and they usually include large investments in infrastructures (always an issue in smithian economics), tipping the balance of cost amortization toward infrastructures rather than human labour.

Other technological fields are lower on infrastructures, are more dynamic in terms of science, being less old. Which gives more room for newbies with potential to grow important to their boss.

Typically, this is the kind of sectors where older workers are kept and not sacked when times get hard.

The other sectors, the ones IT graduates with a brain choose feature the opposite trend: they sack their older workers because of knowledge obsolescence.

It is the new frontier stuff: the fresher, newer territory gives people more opportunities to mark their territory than the older, more established territories.

Again, US citizenism at work.

The number of US citizens who work this choice is quite impressing from personal collection.

Including quite talented US citizens in these technology fields. They prefer to choose another field, newer, more dynamic because they know that structurally, no matter how good they are, older will come before them, forcing them to groom boys for at least one decade, high on the sack list any downturn arising.

When it comes to US citizen economics, one should not stop to the kind of google, facebook and the rest.

It is not limited to a fistful of extremelly successful US citizens. It has to be the choice of a life time for a generation.

The same effect has to be applied vertically to all the members of a generation.

While you have hard times in US citizen economics to find young people success story like google, FB in other technological fields like oil sector, you have to extrapolate to every other worker in the google, FB field.

They do not choose for the money, they choose because they are sectors where one can grow.

Normalcy Bias's picture

You have to hand it to him. This troll is productive for only being paid a small bowl of rice and a little rat meat. Of course, they don't leave one much choice at the laojiao camps...

Tortuga's picture

I've been working on my cognitive skills, for a life time, I'm gettin better, I swear. That being said, my question to you is. What did you say?

Joe The Plumber's picture

He thinks just because the ussa got to the future before any other country that our methods are "US citizenism"

Of course any country that develops the fastest would have had their system labeled "australian citizenism". Or "malaysian citizenism" by this guy

He mistakes a culture of efficient develoPment and resulting natural hegemony as somehow uniquely american

RECISION's picture

My take was that he said that:

Long term career, forty years or so, makes it hard to have natural succession playing through.

On that he is right - BIG issue.

Rantor's picture

as someone who makes a little money on US oil and gas royalties, I laugh at any straight line estimate. While $100 or higher oil is fine with me, it is temporary, as the world economy slumps, so will the price of oil. Eventually, it will probably go below $30 make my old oil fields not worth the effort. I remember a couple of summers ago when Goldman Sachs predicted $200 oil, and laughed at that too, hasn't happened yet.

easypoints's picture

1. If oil suddenly drop to $30, the economy would explode, because cheap energy means cheap growth. The price would be forced to rise, as so much more oil would be used, production would not be able to keep up with demand. 2. Oil can't be supplied at $30. $80/B is around break-even for OPEC production. 

Rene-Paul's picture

I am a Certificated Aircraft Mechanic, I live in Kona, Hawaii. I am 63 years old.The company I work for can not find any mechanics to fill vacancies at 27 dollars per hour. I am begging the young folks to listen: get into an A&P program now! I will give you my job when you graduate! No takers...     And UNLIMITED OT.



billsykes's picture

That is shit money. even shitter for HI. It's an average american wage- how many yrs did you have to go to trade school then apprentice to keep a couple of tons of metal in the air so it doesnt crash?

OT is not something you want to bank your career on. Car mechanics in my town make 80k a yr. 

rsnoble's picture

That's their own damn fault.  Anything labor related, rather you're skilled or not, have higher ups that spend 24/7 trying to figure out how to outsource your ass, lay you off etc.

It's no wonder the younger population want anything to do with it all you hear is "I worked there for 29 years and got laid off and lost my pension" etc etc etc.

If I had to do it all over again I wouldn't even think about touching any bullshit job like this.

Joe The Plumber's picture


No reason to invest time and money in a highly technical skill when management is always trying to find a way to get rid of you, move the company, or bring in more H1B workers from chindia to work for half price

Tortuga's picture

I seem to remember that the cost of living in Hawaii is somewhat higher than the mainland and wonder if the $27 an hour there will be more than a lower class wage? What with all the military bases in Hawaii somethings gotta be up if none of the rif'ed servicemen aren't taking the job.

pitz's picture

Then the salary needs to rise even further.  747 captains are routinely paid $200k+/year.  So there's plenty of room to raise the A&P salaries sufficiently to match, driving more people into the field.  After all, the responsibilites of both are relatively similar; hundreds of lives in their hands!

Plenty of displaced engineers would also be willing to go into that particular field if the employers were willing to retrain. 

The big airline that serves my airport recently cut the A&P's off of flight benefits through a corporate restructuring.  So they can't be in that much demand. 

Crawdaddy's picture

Your avg americano is shit out of luck when it comes to getting a job in petrochem (or IT) land. Background checks knock out good people and what we are left with is motherfuckinindian Brwahardi. Those asshole have no elecetronic background so they get in. They are also incompetent. But because they pass muster they get into hiring positions. Guess who they hire? Yeah - more fucking Brwahardis. The next thing you know those mofos surround you.

The number 1 & 2 fail reasons for Americanos? Sex and money trust "crimes." Otherwise known as an 18 yr old dating his 16 yr old girl friend who also bouncid a 15 dollar check for gas.


TheMerryPrankster's picture

Asrounding insights, who do you like in the World Series this year?

Hexagon Sun's picture

I don't think the shortage exists so much with field labor (roughnecks), but skilled engineers. My father is precisely the type of Baby Boomer petroleum engineer this article speaks of. He graduated school in '78, has a stellar track record in the industry, and gets calls from three headhunters a week even though he is pushing 60 and looking to retire soon. He's been warning of the coming shortage of engineers for years. When he was in school, petroluem engineering was like computer science is today. But the collapse in the price of oil in the 80s changed all that. 

Tortuga's picture

There is a shortage of "experienced" field people. When I was a "fracker" in the 70's the company I worked for hired 125 people that month and 130 people quit. My first job lasted 3 weeks away from home, never off the clock, sleeping standing up, no change of underwear and no showers. I got the grand total of 3 days off when I returned and was called in before I had finished 1 day. The company had been in business since the 40's and I met many office people (engineers, MBA's) on career tracks with 10 or 20 yrs with the company, nobody doing the hands on work had more than 4 yrs, I stayed for 7 years, had to quit 1 time to get promoted to field supervisor because of nepotism and again 2 yrs later to get promoted to a sales position instead of an affirmative action ''wonderboy" that couldn't follow directions well enough to find the new wellsites. not to mention he couldn't read,write or spell. I was laid off on a Friday after being in the field for 9 days with a 1 paragraph letter and a "turn in your car keys to the dispatcher".The field work in this industry sucks and when you see the $100k field jobs going begging in the industry it's because workers realize quickly that it works out to about $2 or $3 bucks an hour, or less during the boomtimes. Not a very good career from say "raising" a family standpoint.

Stack Trace's picture

As has the price in software and tech collapsed over the last few decades. I own a small mobility solutions company. I was an enterprise architect on the team that developed the largest windows mobile application in history. Just for reference to some of my tech cred My company has huge demand for projects from various clients. However, without fail most expect me to compete with India. it is hard finding decent engineers that will work for what amounts to barely above the poverty line. The problem is not generational is my point. It is globalism. Young people aren't stupid. They gravitate to where they have a chance at making a decent living. Engineering type jobs are moving in droves to low cost countries. I don't know the answer to what will turn this trend around but it isn't calling young people stupid and lazy.

GoatETF's picture

An understanding of there is no free lunch will be a start to turning things around. Kyle Bass discussed this eloquently recently when he talked about how you can't import cheap good and not essentially pay the price of decreasing your standard of living (can't find the video at the moment). Plus a decrease in the amount of sociopaths and narcissists in leadership positions will also help.

There is still plenty of IT work out there but people need to open their eyes and think outside the box. Soft skills are becoming more important than the ability to write CDull, c--, etc. The contacting project we’re on now has a shortage of IT people and the money is decent but they need people who can do more than stare at a computer screen and ‘write code’ but also talk to clients and follow standards.

Everyone needs to Suck Less Every Year!

pitz's picture

Yup, I'm subscribed to the University of Colorado Boulder CS new grads jobs mailing list.  It seems to be dominated by employers wanting people talented at all the latest/greatest mobile platforms, but only willing to pay $14/hour.


Winston Churchill's picture

Sorry to yell you that it will only go down from hereon.

Tough ,I know.My charge out has gone from 55 to 30 in 5 years.

Thats a job that cannot be ex sourced to the third world.

Suck it up and take the $14.

Kayman's picture

Tell your story to Lloyd.  Stealing is hard work.

Tortuga's picture

Yea, take the job and lose money because you will not get the next job because there is a bi-fuckinstan bill being voted on in the Senate this week, co-sponsored by John Crony R TX to make it easier to import H1B "Abu" from india and his brother and 3 cousins. They will get your next job. Go Romney, did you see the dumb ass saying yesterday the no matter the democrats are being meaner than a junk yard dog; his organization will only talk about the "real" issues. This McCain clone has a very comprehensive "Dream Act" immigration bill that he will unveil "after" he is elected. "oh the humanity" (what the radio announcer said when the hindenberg crashed. I still don't understand what it means but it sounded really sad).

sumo's picture

And if you ask for $14.10, the job will go offshore to some contractor in Bumfuckistan.

pitz's picture

Seems the other way around; engineers are a dime a dozen, but the field grunts are in short supply.   Most of the grunts seem to outearn the engineers by a not-so-insignificant margin, with far less investment in their training and less accountability.

Tortuga's picture

Pitz, you're right. A "grunt" recieves little training, it's mostly ojt, and works 7 days a week, every week, with cancelled days off. These people are real safe driving on our highways, slapping the chains on the deck or stacking the pipe in the crows nest. These jobs are under paid, overworked and unappreciated. My nephew just returned from 95 days in the field for 2 weeks off and got called back after 3 days because his relief quit. Not a good career with 1 caveat. His job cannot be outsourced.

MrBoompi's picture

We probably have a couple of billion more people on the earth today because of oil and natural gas. When the SHTF we are talking suffering and death on a massive scale.

q99x2's picture

Well that sounds pretty hopeful to what my procognitive recognition abilities are telling me.

I guess it depends on what part of the globe you are located on Mr. Boompi.

Stack Trace's picture

The obvious is constantly being forgotten.

Doofus's picture

My 1st post on this site:  (longtime reader though)

I can tell you this is a VERY REAL issue.

I manage an electrical (field) engineering business in the bay area.  My company does work at a number different industrial facilities, many of them refineries.  I can tell you that Ive had open req's for months now but cannot get them filled.  The Gen Y kids (specifically males) seem to fall into one of two distinct categories; Numb-nuts idiots who think the world is supposed to be handed to them (see; operation wall street types) and other young men who DO have engineering skills.  The latter group has ZERO interest in doing field work.  These kids all wanna go to work for Facebook or Google. 

And its not just refineries that are having this problem.  I talk to people every week who manage major data centers.  They tell me that getting qualified engineers who want to work in a data center is getting tougher and tougher.  This type of work just isnt "sexy" enough for the Gen Y kids.   This is the generation that has been educated from Kindergarten thru college degree by gubmint union workers.  I have no doubt as to the validity of the claims made in this article, mainly because Im living it as I type.  This type of work is being increasingly filled by foreign born engineers.   


Tortuga's picture

I can tell you ain't no dufus cause you are paying attention.