Yes, oil prices go up and down — lately mostly down — but the "Help Wanted" sign is out. There's a generation of workers nearing retirement, and the pipeline of talent needs filling.
"If we look at the pipeline, it's pretty dry," says Katie Mehnert, dressed in a pink safety suit in the middle of a massive Shell refinery and chemical plant in Deer Park, Texas, outside Houston.
Mehnert is CEO of Pink Petro, a for-profit company funded by Shell and others in the energy industry to focus on recruiting women. The Petroleum Equipment and Services Association reports only 15 percent of the current oil and gas workforce is female, a number that drops in half when it comes to higher-paying technical jobs.
Mehnert created Pink Petro four years ago, after flying back to Houston. "I was sitting next to a gentleman," she says, "and he said to me, 'What's a pretty young lady like you doing in a dark, dangerous business like oil and gas?'"
She decided more women needed to be in this "dark" and "dangerous" — and well-paying, rewarding, challenging — industry critical to a functioning world.
Women like Christina Smith, a mother of three. Smith used to manage a Subway store, then she worked in a commercial dive shop before being laid off. She went back to school, where she heard about a scholarship program from Marathon and Shell. That paid for her education, and now she's a shift supervisor at the Shell plant in Deer Park. "My dad's exact words were, 'Kid, you hit the jackpot!" She laughs. "I'm 40 now, but I don't remember growing up somebody saying, 'Why don't you work at the plant?' or, 'You can be an engineer.'"
Mehnert is seeing some more progress at the executive and boardroom level. Vicki Hollub became the first woman to lead a U.S. oil company in 2016 when she took over as President and CEO of Occidental Petroleum.
Lori Fremin is a 26-year veteran of Shell who is currently General Manager for surface engineering for Deepwater Gulf of Mexico. Standing under five feet tall, she is often mistaken for someone who, well, isn't an engineer and a GM.