Oil and gas job losses may have gotten as bad as they'll get

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The deep job cuts in America's oil patch may at last be healing over.

For the fourth month running, data from the Labor Department show employment in oil and gas extraction holding roughly steady, after declining throughout 2015 and the first part of this year. The figures, released Friday as part of the nonfarm payroll report, show a downward slope that's finally flattening.

Since July, employment has held at about 172,000 positions in the sector, which includes higher-paying geoscientists and petroleum engineers as well as lower-skilled roustabouts and roughnecks who work the rigs in oil fields.

The takeaway is that job losses may finally be bottoming out after a brutal stretch of layoffs brought on by an oil price downturn that's now about 2 years old. The job cuts began not long after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries decided in November 2014 against asking member countries to cut output in order to prop up prices.

That forced producers of high-cost oil, such as U.S. shale drillers, to cut output and lay off workers.

It's important to note that more comprehensive data from the Census Bureau have not yet confirmed the bottom that's being shown in the Labor Department numbers. The Census data are based on census reports from all U.S. business establishments, so they capture a more complete picture than Labor's figures, which are based on a survey of a smaller number of companies. That's why there's a gap between Census and Labor data.

The figures from Labor also don't capture all the workers in the oil and gas exploration and production sector. Those include employees in drilling and support services. Service providers like Schlumberger, Halliburton and Baker Hughes have seen the biggest layoffs, because less drilling means less demand for their services.

Census figures show the steep decline in the oilfield services sector.

The Census data are released about five months after the quarter ends. The next release is in early December, but it will measure second-quarter employment, so it may not capture the bottoming in extraction employment that Labor Department data suggest occurred in the third quarter.

The change in employment in the extraction sector over the last six months has decreased to a degree that's within the Bureau of Labor Statistics' confidence interval, so it's not been statistically significant. That means the change from month to month has not been great enough to say with certainty that employment in oil and gas extraction has risen or fallen.