Labor availability — especially welders — is a “huge” issue for company’s at the Port of Catoosa.

Reports of a dwindling supply of licensed welders is no surprise to the industrial-waterway complex director, Bob Portiss.

Portiss, who has been at the port for over 30 years, told a gathering of community people, state legislators and political candidates Friday, the shortage is so critical industries at the Port are

hiring potential welders and training them on the job.

“We just can’t get the technical people we need,” Portiss said. There are more than 50 companies at the Port, employing around 3,000 people.

In an ongoing effort, five major companies at the Port have joined forces and established an online job listing at www.tulsaportjobs.com.

Nine out of the current 22 job listings call for welding expertise.

By James S. Tyree

CNHI News Service

OKLAHOMA CITY — For Stephen Case, 1 billion to one is the safest bet going.

The geologist for Telluric Energy Corporation in Enid has made a 21-year career out of finding oil and natural gas for drilling, and his company is working with Packard and Smith Drilling on the first of 27 new wells in north central Oklahoma over the next two years.

Case said the new well in Enid

on land owned by World Harvest Church will produce an estimated 1.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas along with 8,000 barrels of oil. At today’s energy prices, he estimates the well could make $8 million over the next decade.

“That’s an 8-to-1 return on our money,” Case said.

No one would receive a cent, though, if not for welders putting together the metal rigs, platforms and buildings on site. With oil prices exceeding $70 per barrel and a greater emphasis on finding and using domestic energy, welders are in high demand in the oil and gas industry for building rigs and joining pipes.

After surveying the assortment of metal buildings, platforms, pipes and heavy-duty equipment built by welders within the past two months, Case said, “The beneficial thing is you can’t find a lot of this stuff to buy. You find a few essentials and build around it.”

Ken Russell worked on oilfield projects throughout the 1980s before spending the next decade in other trades. The Enid resident has come back to welding and other oilfield work because “it’s better than most jobs around here.”

Oil and gas locations dot the Oklahoma landscape on parcels no smaller than 160 square acres, and more are being built. Yet, the profession as a whole expects only modest growth over the next few years while estimates on the number of welders vary.

Jeff Weber, associate executive director of the American Welding Society, said the nation has at least 500,000 welders. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics had a national figure of 377,000 in 2004 and expects the number to reach 395,000 by 2014.

In this state, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission says 7,780 people worked as welders in 2005. Meanwhile, the Department of Labor statistics show the state had 4,433 licensed and registered welders as of this week, compared with 4,191 exactly five years earlier.

Supply often doesn’t meet demand for a variety of reasons.

“The average age is 54,” Weber said of welders. “… Not too many young people are going into the field, so there is not an adequate number of people replacing them.”

Rusty Hudson, co-owner of Tommy’s Trailers in Ada, agreed.

“It’s pitiful," Hudson said. "There are not enough kids doing it. You’ve got to find a good one and hang on to him.”

Welding instructors say the issue is more about quality new welders than their quantity. Tracy Borden of High Plains Technology Center in Woodward had 21 students in the morning, 12 in the evening, and he had to turn away 12 others.

The keys are finding those with a strong work ethic and passion for welding. For those willing to work, the jobs are there.

“Finding a kid who has the work ethic, yeah, it’s a problem,” said Tony Irving of Tahlequah's Indian Capital Technology Center. “I have maybe 10 percent of my students come through who can be a quality pipe welder.

“But last month when we were in class, I can’t tell you how many phone calls I got from fab shops and construction companies looking for welders,” he said. “… I have probably 50 companies in my Rolodex right now, and there’s a lot more than that out there.”

Finding quality welders for the oil and gas industry presents an even bigger challenge. Outdoor conditions can be brutal in the summer and winter, the work can be dangerous, and precision is required on projects from the smallest pipes to the largest rig because all pieces must fit perfectly together.

And with energy booming again in Oklahoma, finding those highly trained and experienced welders becomes even more vital.

“Our economy is oilfield driven, period,” Borden said. “We are agriculture, but that doesn’t employ that many welders. It’s the oilfields, and when they’re up, we’re up.”

Calvin White, owner of White’s Welding in Woodward, said he has never been so busy. Within the past few months, his number of employees has doubled from 15 to 30, and his business is entirely oil and gas related.

“It’s high right now, very high,” White said. “I’ve got somebody calling seven days a week for everything from maintenance on rigs to pipelines.”

The demand has pushed wages for welders on drilling projects to $50 to $60 per hour or more. The statewide mean for all welders, solderers and brazers is $14.22, according to the Oklahoma Economic Security Commission’s 2005 wage report.

It also explains why drilling companies normally seek experienced welders for their projects.

“The hardest part of welding is laying out the equipment to make sure it’s exactly true and straight,” said Densiel Bottger, a superintendent with Arrow Drilling in Oklahoma City. “These guys are artists.”

Anthony Turner is a 30-year-old welder who started right out of high school by building steel storage tanks for seven years before moving on to oil field work. Skill for him and other welders like Turner is paying off.

“It’s all about the money,” said Turner, who works throughout central Oklahoma. “You work on a pipeline and they might pay you $40 an hour and all your expenses and even lunch, and then a drilling outfit might say they’ll pay you $60 an hour. There’s just a high demand for welders everywhere, for doing everything.”

James S. Tyree is CNHI News Service Oklahoma reporter.

Clarice Doye, Progress executive editor contributed to this report.

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