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Roustabouts in the oilfields.

Roustabouts in the Oilfields

Much of the routine physical labor and maintenance in and around oilfields and pipelines is performed by workers called roustabouts. They dig ditches or trenches for foundations or for drainage, load and unload trucks and boats, mix concrete, but down trees and brush, and connect pipes and hydraulic hoses using handtools. They also may assemble and perform minor repairs on oilfield machinery and equipment--such as pumps, boilers, valves, and steam engines. Because of increasing mechanization in recent years, roustabouts now operate motorized lifts, power tools, and electronic testers, and have assumed more maintenance responsibilities.

Most roustabouts work with crews around existing oil wells. Others work for companies engaged in drilling wells, almost all of which are specialized companies known as drilling contractors.

Roustabouts occasionally assist skilled workers such as welders, electricians, mechanics, painters, and carpenters. They generally work under the supervision of the supervisory or head maintenance operator.

Working Conditions

Roustabouts work outdoors in all kinds of weather. Because roustabouts work with heavy materials and equipment such as drill rigs and cranes, their work is fairly strenuous and requires frequent bending, stooping, climbing, and heavy lifting. They also are subject to falls from rigs, derricks, and other platforms; injuries from falling objects; cuts and abrasions from various tools and equipment; sore or strained muscles from heavy lifting; and health problems.

Those who work offshore generally work 12 hours a day for 7 days and then have 7 days off. Most live on the barge or platform for a week at a time and return to shore by helicopter or crewboat. In comparison, those who work onshore in oil production operations generally work regular 5-day, 40-hour weeks. Many drilling operations continue 24 hours a day until oil is discovered or the location is abandoned as a dry hole. This requires three 8-hour shifts, or tours, 7 days a week.

Roustabouts working with drilling crews may expect to move from place to place since their work in a particular field may be completed in a few months. Those who work on producing wells usually remain in the same location for long periods.


Roustabouts held about 81,000 jobs in 1984. Over three-fourths of all jobs were in the oil or gas field services industry. The remaining jobs were in the crude petroleum and natural gas industry. Although drilling for oil and gas is done in a large number of States, about 85 percent of all workers are employed in 8 States. Texas leads in the number of oilfield jobs, followed by Louisiana, Oklahoma, California, Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and New Mexico.

Most jobs are full-time, permanent positions. However, some roustabouts are hired on a temporary basis, such as students during the summer.

Qualifications and Advancement

People generally obtain jobs as roustabouts with little or no formal training or work experience. However, because of competition for jobs in recent years, an increasing proportion of entrants ot this occupation have previous work experience as a roustabout.

There are no age requirements. High school graduates are preferred. Applicants must be physically fit and able to pass a physical examination because the job requires moderate strength. Employers also seek candidates who have mechanical ability, agility, coordination, and good eyesight. Some companies administer aptitude tests to prospective employees.

Roustabouts are usually hired in the field by the crew or division chief or by local company representatives. Companies generally hire workers who live near the work site.

Most workers learn through on-the-job training under the supervision of a more skilled worker. Roustabouts start by performing basic laborer tasks such as unloading trucks and digging trenches. As they gain experience, they progress to more complex tasks such as fixing a motor or repairing a pump. During their training, they learn about the safety and maintenance of equipment and machinery and general oilfield operations. Those on maintenance and operation crews can advance to jobs as switcher, gager, lease operator, or, for those who demonstrate leadership qualities, to head maintenance operator. Roustabouts on drilling crews may advance to roughneck, floor hand, or rotary helper in 3 to 6 months. (Roughnecks guide pipe sections to and from oil well openings and help operate drilling machinery.) Roughnecks and other crew members may advance to derrick operator and, after several years, to rotary driller. A driller can advance to tool pusher in charge of one or more drilling rigs.

Employers are often reluctant to invest in training because of the relatively high turnover rate among roustabouts. However, some employees are offered an opportunity to take basic home-study courses offered by the American Petroleum Institute. In some companies, roustabouts participate in educational assistance programs that pay for job-related courses taken on the employee's own time.

Roustabouts who are graduates of 1 1/2-to 2-year petroleum technology programs can advance to engineering technician or related jobs. Some attend company schools where they receive specialized training in electricity, welding, or other subjects, and later advance to various craft jobs--electrician, carpenter, or pipefitter, for example.

During periods of rapid growth in the oil industry, advancement opportunities are plentiful for capable workers; because new jobs have been scarce in recent years, however, advancement opportunities have been limited.

Job Outlook

Little or no change in the employment of roustabouts is expected through the mid-1990's as a result of continued stagnation in the oil industry and increased mechanization.

Replacement needs will account for virtually all job openings in this occupation. As is the case in many entry-level occupations, turnover among roustabouts is relatively high, particularly for those workers involved in offshore drilling. Many people take roustabout jobs to earn money for a specific purpose--for example, a college education--and quit after a short time. Still others stay only long enough to acquire the minimum skills to advance into more highly skilled jobs.

During the middle to late 1970's, a worldwide shortage of oil prompted U.S. firms to search for new supplies and to increase the amount of oil recovered from existing wells. Massive hirings of new workers resulted. However, more recent years have been characterized by a glut of oil. Major oil finds around the world increased the supply of oil while conservation by industry and the public, in addition to a worldwide recession, reduced the demand. This glut resulted in falling oil prices and reduced incentives for the oil industry to expand rapidly.

Despite some slow improvement, few new roustabout jobs are expected in the foreseeable future. As a result, employers can continue to be selective in hiring. Thus, job opportunities will be best for people with previous experience as a roustabout. Better job opportunities are expected on offshore rigs than in onshore activities.

Employment of roustabouts is sensitive to cyclical swings in the economy, particularly to the level of activity in the oil industry. During a slowdown in activity, roustabouts are subject to layoffs.


In 1984, estimated earnings for roustabouts averaged $9.31 an hour. Roustabouts in the oil and gas field industry averaged $10.40 an hour. Those working offshore earned $11.22 an hour, while onshore workers earned $9.77 an hour. Roustabouts working in the contract drilling industry earned $7.69 an hour. Those working onshore earned $8.25 an hour, while offshore workers earned $7.57 an hour.

Most roustabouts are not members of unions. Only about one-fourth of all firms employing field operation workers and less than 5 percent of firms employing contract drilling workers were covered by union contracts. Workers in establishments with collective bargaining agreements were represented either by independent unions such as the Associated Petroleum Employees Union or by the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union, an AFL-CIO affiliate.

Related Occupations

Roustabouts assist skilled oilfield workers. Other laborers who assist skilled workers include blacksmith helpers, construction laborers, dockhands, and material handlers.

Sources of Additional Information

Information on job opportunities for roustabouts is available from local offices of the State employment service and oil companies. For a list of the names and addresses of oil companies, consult either the U.S.A. Oil Industry Directory or the Time Oil and Gas Directory, which may be available in public libraries.
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Title Annotation:employment and training
Author:Dillon, Hall
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1985
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