A detailed breakdown of three little known but well-paying oilfield occupations.
Since moving to North Dakota in 2012 to get in on the oil boom, I’ve spent a cumulative 7 years in the oilfield. I’ve held a number of different jobs in the industry, some of which I had no idea even existed until I moved up here.
While the fracking boom that kicked off the explosive growth in the Bakken region back in the mid-2000s through the 2014 has settled into maturity, oil prices currently remain high. As do many job opportunities. And some fields like the Permian Basin in West Texas remain active and growing.
The unique thing about the oilfield is that there are many entry-level positions that pay extremely well, but don’t require much, or even any experience. Whereas many other industries are prone to gatekeeping, requiring a degree or specialized training, the oilfield is generally very open to newcomers.
The pay is usually well above average. Just be willing to work hard and (possibly) get dirty. You may also have to move to a new state. I had to move 1,700 miles from Philadelphia to North Dakota myself. A difficult adjustment for sure, but it’s proven financially rewarding.
The jobs I’m going to talk about here can mainly be found in North Dakota, Colorado, West Texas, and New Mexico. Though there are many other oilfield and natural gas plays throughout the country, like the Marcellus Shale, that cuts through eastern Ohio into Pennsylvania up to New York State. And even California, which is dotted with hidden pump jacks throughout Los Angles.
If you’re looking for work, or looking to make a career change into the energy industry, these three occupations might provide you with a good place to start. Each of them potentially pay above the U.S. average and median income. The first two are jobs that I’ve done myself.
It can be really scary and daunting to get into a new industry. But it doesn’t have to be. Hopefully, this article will be a helpful guide.
Lease Operator (aka “Pumper”)
This is an entry level position that’s part tech and part mechanic. A pumper is given a route of oil wells to oversee. Basically, your job is to make sure everything runs smoothly, safely, and that the oil gets sold.
Pumper was my second job in the oilfield. A postion I held for two and a half years. For people looking to procure long-term employment in the oil industry, but don’t have a degree in something like geology or engineering, this is a great place to start.
The training process is mostly hands-on, though there are some schools that might offer classroom instruction in pumping that can help prepare you for working live in the field. But it’s mostly something you’ll learn on the job (as are many positions in the oilfield).
As a pumper, you’ll not only manage your own route of wells, but most likely assist other pumpers in the field, coordinate and oversee roustabout projects, act as a liasion between operations in the field and management back in the office, and communicate the status of sale tanks with oil buyers. There is quite a bit of communication required in this role, and sometimes it can feel like you’re a customer service rep at a phone center.
You’ll also be a meter reader, and collect data from a large piece of equipment known as a LACT. That stands for Lease Automatic Custody Transfer. Basically, a LACT unit automatically samples and ships the oil down through the pipeline directly from the tanks. Oil companies are increasingly using LACTs as a form of automation, especially on sites that produce significant quantities of oil.
You’ll be the first one on the scene to a site, and the one primarily responsible for detecting any mechanical or safety concerns.
Pumping can at times be taxing, requiring a lot of late days, nightly call-outs, and overtime, especially when you have a lot of active wells. Sometimes it can be messy, especially if you have an oil spill or some kind of clean-up to deal with. There’s almost always something to be done on a site.
But pumping can also be rewarding. It offers a lot of freedom and independence. You largely work on your own, in a company work truck, without any bosses hovering over your shoulder. You’ll also work outdoors in all sorts of weather. So if you dislike working in a cubicle farm like I do, pumping might be a good option.
I worked an 8×4 and 7×2 schedule during the daytime, and I’ve found since that that is a very typical schedule for many companies. Basically, you work eight days straight, then have a four day weekend. When you come back, you work seven days straight, then have two days off. Then you restart the eight-day portion again. So you get a four-day weekend every three weeks. This makes vacation time longer, too, as you can stack your PTO days at the end of you four says off, in-between your two days off. Gaining an extra six days of vacation on top of your paid days off. Not a bad deal.
I’ve also seen schedules like 7 days on, 7 days off, 10 days on, 4 days off, and even the normal 5 days on, 2 days off deal you typically see in your traditional 9–5 type office job. Every oil company is different.
This is largely dependent on what area of the country you work in, and the company, as well as what level of experience you’ve achieved. But even entry-level with little to no experience in the oilfield you can see a starting salary around $50-$70k+ base, with overtime. That’s a pretty remarkable starting salary for little experience relative to many other positions.
Pay also depends on the state of the oil industry overall, and whether a particular region is growing or has reached a plateau. Right now, with oil prices high, it’s a great time to look for opportunities as a pumper, as many companies have started drilling new wells again. But remember that price swings can work against you. If oil falls, companies can start to tighten up spending and hiring, and that can eat into your overtime and other benefits.
Lease Operator/Pumper is a good starting position in the oil industry that can lead to a lot of opportunities. It isn’t as physically demanding as a roustabout or a workover rig position, positions that often have long hours and grueling physical work. During my few years as a pumper, I saw people of all ages and backgrounds in the position, including single moms, college grads, and even a retired chiropractor.
Many times people think that to work in the oilfield you have to be some tough guy roughneck or something. Rest assured, that is not the case. Many positions in the field, including pumping, are very much accessible to everyone.
If working as a pumper sounds too intense and involved, then the gauger position might be perfect for you. This is a very niche position that few people know about.
A gauger generally works for a pipeline company, and is mainly responsible for shipping the oil sale tanks on a customer lease site down the pipeline.
You’ll also coordinate alongside the pumper, who will usually be the one notifying you about tanks ready for shipping.
But before shipping any oil, there’s a little chemistry involved. First, an oil tank has to be measured, sampled, and secured. The gauging aspect refers to the important steps of collecting the necessary data about the oil.
A gauger uses a gauge tape (like a long tape measure) to measure the height of the oil in the tank. Afterwards, they collect a few ounces worth of samples from the top and bottom of the tank. During this, they’ll also be collecting the gravity (basically the density of the oil) and temperature. This data is crucial to determining the oil’s quality, as well as determining the proper barrel count. At about $90+ a barrel currently, being off even a little bit can cost quite a bit of money.
A typical oil tank can hold around 400–500 barrels of oil, but generally a pumper will close off a tank when it’s no more than 2/3rds full. So let’s say you have 300 barrels of oil. At the current price, that comes out to about $27,000.
As a gauger, you are basically creating the company’s bottom line. So it’s vital to collect accurate information.
To test the oil, a gauger will use a centrifuge and a solvent mix to shake out any base sediment or water. This is done to ensure the oil has a certain standard of quality that’s acceptable to ship. It’s a simple process, but an important one.
Next, after determining that the oil is good to go, a gauger will prepare the tank for sale by opening up the proper valves, and activating the pumps. Generally, there will be a pump, or set of pumps, installed on site alongside the tanks. These pumps help ship the oil miles underground through a network of pipes, until it reaches a gathering station. It becomes a bit complicated from there, but basically the pipeline company is helping the oil company ship their oil into the market.
Like the pumper, gaugers also check on LACT units, record data, and perform any maintenance required.
Shipping through an oil pipeline is actually the most efficient and safest way to transport oil. It beats rail and truck quite handidly. There are thousands of miles of oil and natural gas pipeline all across the the country, moving millions of barrels around every year. As a gauger, you get to be part of the nations energy “cardiovascular system,” so to speak. A task that’s especially vital these days with higher oil prices and tighter oil availability.
A starting gauger will, just like a pumper, generally work on a rotating shift. When I was a gauger, I had a fantastic schedule. Eight days on, then six days off. However, I’ve also heard of some places that offer two weeks on and two weeks off. That can be a great set-up for someone who has family living elsewhere, giving you plenty of time on your days off to enjoy time at home.
Also like the pumper position, this will vary depending on where you work. In the Bakken region, I saw gauger positions start off at around $60k+ a year, and depending on the amount of OT, that could get you to the $80k mark or even higher. As I mentioned above, the gauger position is pretty niche. I like to think of it as a diamond in the rough. It generally comes with a great schedule, and the work load is pretty low-key. During my time as a gauger, I also saw all types of people come and go. Though I noticed that the position tended to skew middle-aged or older. It’s a great job for someone who doesn’t want a lot of physical demands, while still making good money.
This last job is not one I’ve done myself, but as a former pumper and gauger, I’ve interacted with plenty of people who do it. When a recently fracked well opens, it can produce massive and unpredictable amounts of oil, gas, and salt water.
A flowback operator watches a new well site, makes sure the oil stays flowing into the tanks, closes tanks off when they are ready for sale, and ensures the safe and efficient flow of the well.
A fracked well typically does its biggest production numbers right after it opens, but falls off quickly after a few weeks or months. This early busy period oftentimes requires 24/7 oversight by a flowback crew.
As a flowback operator, you may possibly work with someone else if it’s a big enough well. But most likely you’ll be working alone. You’ll spend your time inspecting equipment throughout the site to make sure everything is functioning properly, and of course checking on oil tank levels.
The most important aspect of the job is to prevent oil spills.
If the oil you’re overseeing is pipelined in, you’ll be coordinating with gaugers and other personnel on the pipeline side to ensure that oil is shipped as it’s ready. If there’s a LACT unit on site, you’ll check to make sure it stays running as needed. If it’s not a pipelined well, you’ll be working with CDL-A oil haulers, who will be coming in and out constantly to pull oil.
A new well is a busy and sometimes dangerous place. Flowback watch requires attention to detail and focus. Entry level base pay can range, but you make up for it with tons of overtime. Flowback operators often work on 12-hour rotating shifts. So you may work day side on one hitch, then work nights on the next. It’s not generally a laborious position. It can even be boring because you’re often just performing the same checklist activities again and again. But it can be very busy and the excess hours can wear you down.
As a brand new flowback operator you may not make that much per hour, but you will often work lots of OT. That can put you at the $40k-$50k range at base possibly, but up to $80k or even higher with the extra hours.
It’s also important to point out that the position of flowback operator comes with certain hazards. This is not the safest job. Even with safety protocols, the gases and vapors coming out of a well are unpredictable. Oil wells, especially new ones, produce all sorts of toxic gases and fluid, and as the person overseeing the production, you will potentially be first exposed to these dangers.
Also, like the gauger and pumper positions, you’ll likely be required to work in lots of adverse conditions and environments. In North Dakota for instance, the winters get brutally cold, with wind chill temps in the negatives. Texas has the high heat, of course. While places like Colorado have the snow.
Finally, this list is not exhaustive. It’s a good starting point for anyone who’s looking to get started in the oilfield, and has little experience. There are some positions that pay as well or even higher. Jobs such as CDL driver or wireline operator. I didn’t include those, however, as they require either specialized training or certification, or usually some measure of experience before you make the bigger $80k plus money.
A CDL-A frac sand hauler can make $100k+ as a company driver. An owner operator can make substantially more. As can a qualified wireline operator. But that job sometimes requires a CDL, as well as some additional training and experience.
There are other gigs that can pay well with little or no experience, such as workover or drilling rig crew, or roustabout, as mentioned previously. Depending on the territory and demand, pay can be pretty decent for those positions. They are way more physically laborious than the three positions I talked about above. But if that’s something you’re okay with, then you could also explore those.
The oilfield is pretty accessible at the moment. So if you’re considering a change in careers, now would be a good time to make the jump. Hopefully, this article has helped.