ABILENE, Texas -- Last month, David Clinton watched his free-lance commercial art business collapse as the looming crisis in the Persian Gulf fueled fears of a U.S. recession.
Now the Dallas native has placed a $2,200 bet that the same crisis will guarantee that he can find work in a new field: the Texas Oil Patch.
"What's going to happen over there -- it's on everybody's minds," Clinton says, pausing red-faced and sweaty after a bone-jarring stint on the wrenches used to manipulate drilling pipe on a 108-foot training rig.
Clinton, 25, is one of 10 students enrolled in a five-week roughneck training program in Abilene. Now in his third week of training, he spends eight hours each day learning the intricacies of drilling or "tripping pipe" and the often impenetrable terminology used to describe a roughneck's job.
"We've already learned to watch the oil price swings. A couple of days ago it dropped $5," he says. "It's still so volatile that it's hard to tell what could happen, but we're all hoping it will mean more work in the Oil Patch."
The school, run by the Texas A&M University System's Texas Engineering Extension Service center in Abilene, recently reopened for the first time since 1986, when low oil prices and lack of work for its students forced it to close.
For the first time in almost five years, there is growing demand for workers trained to fill the industry's grimiest, toughest jobs: 00 manning rigs that drill for oil.
Within the past year, roughneck wages have risen from $6 or $7 an hour to $8 an hour in the Abilene area and $10 in the Permian Basin, the oil field surrounding Midland and Odessa, says Bob Prock, regional manager for the extension service in Abilene. Many companies have been forced to pay bonuses to keep employees from selling their services to the highest bidder, he says.
Demand for rig workers began rising even before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait sent oil prices soaring worldwide.
The prolonged bust of the mid-1980s -- which saw the number of working rigs in the United States drop from more than 2,000 to little more than 600 -- forced thousands of oil field workers out of the industry. Many who left now have little interest in returning to a job so vulnerable to wild economic swings.
When the number of working rigs began inching upward last year, drilling contractors had difficulty finding experienced workers. By January, with more than 900 rigs in operation nationwide, contractors were begging the Texas A&M facility to resume its training program, Prock says.
The program accepted its first new class in July, a few weeks before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Since the invasion, interest in the classes has mushroomed.
Drilling companies still are waiting cautiously to see what direction the crisis may go. But prospective students have been calling for weeks from around the country, eager to get in on what they hear might become another oil boom.
"We're getting 60 to 70 calls a week now," Prock says. "It's really attractive to a lot of kids out here. Let's say I'm a young man 18 to 20 with a high school education. What are my options? I can go work at McDonald's. If I'm in good health, I can join the Army or the Air Force.
"But the oil field is an option where they can go in making starting wages of $8 to $10 an hour, with overtime," he says.
Ty Williams, 21, is one of those clamoring for the high hourly wage and the possibility of even higher pay if there is a crisis-fueled boom. A farm worker from Haskell, Texas, he was facing unemployment when he learned about the school and decided that the Persian Gulf standoff gave him a good time to apply.
"It seemed like a good time to get into the oil field with everything that's happening over there. I'm counting on it helping me stay in a good job for a while," he says. "There's nothing else for people like me."
The school's two instructors say Williams' expectations are typical.
"They think it's really going to improve our situation. And they're all excited about the big money they're going to make," says Wayne Davis, a 36-year Oil Patch veteran who began teaching classes when the school reopened.
Roughnecks' school reopens in oil land to meet rising need