The Great Escape

I found out that a friend from the same company we used to work at was laid off yesterday. Next week will be two years since I was laid off so the specter of unemployment has been hanging over my former colleagues for over three years now. Close to 500,000 jobs have been lost in the oil sector in that time.

The recession in the oil business has been deeper and tougher than anyone could have predicted. Each time it looks like things have improved in the industry it just seems to get worse. Having seen the tough time people have gone through over the last two years I can’t but think that getting out when we did was dodging a bullet. I know the levels of uncertainty that people in the industry have gone through in the last two years, and i’m not sure it is something I would have wanted to go through. The money and benefits might not have offset that level of stress.

Of course we are lucky that when we did leave we were incredibly fortunate that we didn’t have to look for a new job. Not everyone is so lucky. Unfortunately as well a lot of oil patch skills are not transferable to other industries. General skills yes, but the specific experience earned over time will not easily make one a strong candidate for jobs in other sectors. Those laid off are having hard times finding new jobs in oil industry so a lot are needing retraining. Tough when you are in your forties or fifties.

It has been interesting that when a plant or factory closes and a few hundred jobs are lost it makes national news. However the massive amount of job losses in the oil patch seems to have gone under the news radar. I suspect this is because in general they are relatively high paying jobs and they are not affecting one community. Although the city of Houston (as well as places like Calgary and Aberdeen) have been massively impacted.

I think we all understand the need to economize when times are bad and businesses need to create shareholder value and not be seen as a charity but I do wonder often if businesses are sacrificing long term rewards for short term profits.

It has been interesting during this time seeing the difference in the legal way that lay offs occur in different countries. In the US you are employed “at-will” so you can be let go at any time (with an appropriate contractually obligated package) this means the lay off process is pretty dehumanizing. You are told you are no longer wanted, you pack up your desk and then are out of there (usually without being allowed to talk to anyone) within the hour. It’s short sharp shock.

In the UK, for example specific job categories have to be declared as at risk with a percentage reduction officially announced. There then has to be a consultation period where all the people who are “at risk” are interviewed and reasonable effort has to be made to find other jobs for them in the organization. Then finally after many weeks all the at risk people go to an HR meeting where they are told if they are staying or going.

Obviously this method has much more transparency and you are not at the whim of a boss you don’t get on with but as the process may take weeks or months the level of uncertainty is huge and there is significant impact on morale in the whole organization.

I often wonder why businesses don’t run like sports teams where you sign say a 5 year contract at a set salary. If the company wants to get rid of you before the contract is up they would need to pay out the remainder of your contract. If after the 5 years both parties want to move on then there is no pay out needed and everyone splits amicably. Should everyone want to carry on, well you renegotiate the contract hopefully with a higher salary. To me this seems fairer, maybe its just not practical in the business world.

Anyway, I feel like i’m very glad to have not been hanging around the last 2 years. The industry still seems in a state of uncertainty and good people are still losing their jobs. I expect the level of morale in all offices in all companies in the oil sector is still rock bottom (and if I know anything about the business, those left are having to pick up the slack for those who have gone and working horrendous hours) and all things being equal i’m glad we escaped (or was pushed!) when we did.


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