The Working Coast: As Louisiana Loses Oil Jobs, Lafayette Feels It Worst

May 11, 2016

The oil and gas downturn has resulted in a loss of about 12,000 jobs across Louisiana over the past year. Many of those jobs are concentrated in smaller metropolitan areas, like the Cajun city of Lafayette, which has lost the most. The city that once boomed as a result of oil and gas activity is now struggling to not go bust.

 


  

 

Thunderstorms move in as rush hour commuters stop at an Exxon filling station in south Lafayette. Today, regular gas is just $1.99 a gallon. People here have mixed feelings about that.

“The price of gas is pretty good right now, but the price of oil is bad — as far as benefiting the economy,” says Ryan Guilbeau. Others agree, saying they like paying cheap prices at the pump, but worry about their friends and family in the oil fields.

Even those who don’t work in the industry understand that the health of their community relies on a higher price for oil. The unemployment rate in Lafayette is around seven percent, a few points higher than the state and national averages.

Known as the “energy corridor,” the 140-mile stretch of Highway 90 from Lafayette to New Orleans is home to thousands of oil and gas workers.

 

Until recently, Ronald Miller was one of them. He did maintenance on oil rigs for 12 years for General Electric. Now he sits in front of a computer with a career counselor at the Louisiana Workforce Commission (LWC) offices in Lafayette. The counselor walks him through how to search for jobs on Hire, the LWC’s jobsearch website. Searching for terms like “rigging foreman” turns up results, but mostly in the Houston area, nearly three hours away.

Miller is still living on the small severance package he got when he was laid off in February. He says it won’t last long. It certainly won’t let him spoil his daughter with new clothes at the mall like he likes to do.

Miller was good at his job and climbed the ladder. Now he’s losing sleep and going to counseling.

“It’s kind of depressing, because you’ve been doing something for so long. It’s part of your life,” he says. “Every morning you wake up and know what your day is going to consist of.”

Thousands of oil and gas workers have turned to the workforce office for help. The parking lot is packed and every computer inside is taken.

The parking lot at the Louisiana Workforce Commission's Lafayette office is packed on a recent weekday morning.
Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO

Tina Johnstone runs the office.“We’re seeing our figures doubling in the number of individuals coming in,” she says. “We started to see it as soon as oil prices started to go down.”

Johnstone says most of these workers will not be able to go back to their oil jobs. She’s telling them that those jobs — the ones that got them six figure salaries, and paid for boats and second homes with just a high school education — they should consider them gone. Get new training, and be open to moving.

“So what we’re looking at is actually getting them retrained in occupations that are in demand, she says. “They may not be in our labor market, but they are in our neighbor’s, so we’re looking at Lake Charles and Baton Rouge, both which are having a construction boom.”

Gregg Gothreaux is CEO of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority. “Lafayette will be changed forever because of this crisis in the energy business,” he says. According to Gothreaux, about 45 percent of the economy directly relies on the oil and gas industry, such as offshore service and pipeline construction companies. He says retail sales are down nearly eight percent from last year.

Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux was elected just a few months ago. He says if the downturn continues it will be hard to pay for much-needed infrastructure improvements.
Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO

Downtown, the city has a new Mayor-President dealing with this: Joel Robideaux. He says Lafayette grew rapidly in the last decade of the oil boom, but now there’s not enough money to pay for the upkeep.

“Our infrastructure needs are pretty great, with all of the growth we have some serious traffic problems,” he says. “A couple areas have some drainage issues that we absolutely need to address.”

Robideaux wants to take out bonds to pay for those things over several years, but isn’t sure it’s a good idea. This downturn isn’t as bad as it’s been in the past, but — “If it continues on for another year or so, well, then we’ll be heading toward the situation more like the 80s,” he says.

Back then oil dropped to $12 a barrel. There were suicides. Billboards went up: “The last one to leave Lafayette, turn off the lights.” Robideaux himself avoided an oil career because of it. “Now I would tell everyone not to panic,” he says. “We’re going to make it through this.”

Don’t count on an oil comeback, though. Robideaux says if workers are willing to go back to school, maybe in the growing tech and healthcare fields, Lafayette will survive — but it will never be the same.

 

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.