SINGAPORE Oct 15 What jobs offer the highest
pay? Investment banking is up there. So is specialist surgery.
But consider this. Slightly over twenty years ago, Johnathan
Roberts started work on an oil rig at $5 an hour. Today, the
newly appointed operations manager of Norway's Standard Drilling
makes about half a million dollars a year.
Even accounting for inflation, it's a huge jump for the
45-year-old American. Salaries on oil rigs have soared because
of a global boom in offshore drilling.
Managers and workers are scarce in this specialised
industry, where the work is intense and the job involves living
on a platform in remote seas for weeks. For new players in Asia,
where the energy demands of booming economies are driving a
foray into offshore drilling, the costs and availability of
skilled workers will be a big restraining factor.
"The amount of money they are making an hour is just
mind-boggling now, just five years ago they were making just
half that," said Roberts, who moved to Singapore this year from
Texas. He said his pay more than doubled in 1999 when the
industry faced a labour shortage like the one that appears to be
The increasing demand for oil and gas is pushing energy
companies to explore frontier areas like the Arctic and new
offshore zones given that output from accessible fields is
declining. Global oil demand has risen 14 percent in total to 88
million barrels per day (bpd) in 2011 from 2001, according to
the BP annual statistical review. Rapidly growing economies have
accounted for much of the increase -- consumption in China
doubled in the same period to 9.76 million bpd.
Energy and mining offer good salaries, said Wyn James, a
Singapore-based Briton who left a career in banking this year to
open a firm that recruits and places workers in mining and oil
"What we are seeing now is an acute shortage of people
actually with applied skills, from engineering or chemical
backgrounds," James said.
"Even if the skills do exist globally, they don't
necessarily exist in the place that is needed. So what we are
doing is we are picking up people from all corners of the world
and we are sticking them into projects, whether it's short-term
or medium-term, but where they can earn reasonable money, live
in a different country, live offshore, whatever that may be."
Deepwater drilling, one of the most difficult but most
lucrative parts of the extraction business, has mainly been
centred in the Gulf of Mexico. But in the past decade, Brazil
has become a key player, exploring untapped reserves in the
Santos basin as far away as 300 km (188 miles) southeast of Sao
Paulo, and at depths of over 1,500 metres. That drive is sucking
in hundreds of rig operators, drillers, engineers and other
On the other side of the world, China National Offshore Oil
Corp (CNOOC) aims to build capacity to produce one million
barrels per day of oil equivalent in deep waters offshore China
India, Asia's third-biggest oil consumer, is also expanding
into the deep waters of the Bay of Bengal.
There were 540 offshore oil rigs in the world last year and,
by the end of 2012, the number should rise by 51 to 591, says
Faststream Recruitment, a U.K.-based firm that specializes in
hiring for the shipping, oil and gas industry.
It is the biggest jump for any year in the past decade, said
Mark Robertshaw, managing director of Faststream. In 2013, the
number will grow by 28 to 619.
The increase would mean more than 11,000 new jobs over the
next 12 to 18 months from a total of 117,000, based on an
average need of about 184 jobs on one rig, he said.
"If you consider that over the past 10 years, the annual
number of rigs under contract has grown to average 539 during
2011, it becomes apparent that offshore employment for workers
actually housed on floaters and jackups will spike
significantly," Robertshaw said.
ROUSTABOUTS AND ROUGHNECKS
The labour crunch has already seen pay for a roustabout, the
least skilled worker on a rig, nearly double in the past five
years to $18-$20 an hour. A roughneck, a rank higher, earns
about $27-$28, said Roberts, the U.S. rig manager.
"When the rousta gets a raise it doesn't just stop there,"
he said. "It goes all the way to the top."
A rig operates on 12-hour shifts and typically workers do 14
days and then rotate out for a break for another 14 days.
The schedule puts off many and with salaries in IT and other
industries growing, an engineering graduate or technician has
"Skilled labour is becoming difficult to find," said Scott
Kerr, chief executive of Norwegian deepwater drilling company
The salary increases show up on balance sheets. For Keppel
Corp., the world's largest rig builder, wages and
salaries surged 27 percent to $1.43 billion by 2011 from 2007,
while the number of employees increased 5.7 percent over the
same period, according to its annual reports. Nearly 90 percent
of staff work in the oil rig division.
Besides pay, companies try to attract talent with career
"An engineer does not need to stay an engineer all his life.
I was trained as a naval architect and I practised for a few
years, but beyond that I was in management," said Choo Chiau
Beng, chief executive of Keppel Corp.
"In some respects, being a highly paid CEO has attracted
people to Keppel, because it shows you don't need to be a lawyer
to be highly paid, you can be an engineer and be highly paid."
For rig men like Roberts, the money is not to be sneezed at.
"After clearing taxes, my first check after one week was
$167," he said. "My first apartment was very small, it was a
little bitty one bedroom studio."
Today, Roberts owns a home in a community in Texas that has
manicured lawns, landscaped gardens and four golf courses. He is
saving to buy a $2 million ranch.
"I didn't come up with a silver spoon in my mouth, I came up
working through the ranks," he said.