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Industry struggles to attract workers

Despite the &

36;16 an hour starting pay, young people shy away from hot, sweaty work in the oil fields

The Associated Press

TAFT, Calif. ' It's a job of last resort.

That's how some of the next generation in California's oil country see work in the fields.

It's smelly, dirty, backbreaking ' thriving during the booms, yes, but crushing in the troughs. Many of the teenagers and twenty-somethings of Kern County say they'd prefer any alternative, despite the nearly unbeatable &

36;16-an-hour starting salary of a rig hand or roustabout.

They saw their fathers sweating in the fields, knew the uncertainty of the paycheck-to-paycheck pendulum ' and actually listened when counseled not to follow in oily footsteps.

We sure shot ourselves in the foot, telling the kids for years, 'Go somewhere else,' said Fred Holmes, 60, one in a long line of oilmen and president of the Independent Oil Producers Agency. Now that's just what they're doing. We've scared everyone off the oil patch.

— The fields that once made California the nation's top oil-producing state still produce oceans of oil each year, but they have suffered a slow decline since the mid-1980s.

There's nothing to keep the industry from sunsetting, Holmes says.

In the meantime, the petroleum industry requires vigorous young workers, Holmes said.

Jobs in the fields are still plentiful, and the starting salary dwarfs minimum wage. But teens whose parents and grandparents made their livings from the rise and fall of a pump are opting for the burgeoning service economy ' answering phones and waiting tables rather than donning oil-drenched overalls.

Keaton Polson, a 20-year-old hair stylist, worked for one summer as a rig hand. Never again.

I'd rather work in an air conditioned strip mall in Bakersfield and make &

36;50 or &

36;60 in tips than work in the oil fields, even if that pays more, he said.

Polson is taking night classes and, though still unsure what profession he'll choose, he knows it won't be oil-related.

For some, there's no escaping the pull of the fields.

Dennis Easley, 21, would've liked to study computer technology in college.

But having a child at 17 with his then-girlfriend derailed those plans. Like his father, Easley started oil work the day after high school graduation.

If I had anywhere else to go, I would, Easley said, his jeans spattered with oil after a day repairing pumps in 90-plus-degree heat. This ain't something people are running to do if they have other choices.

Some teachers are trying to convince high school students that oil is an attractive prospect.

As a group, oil industry managers are aging, locals say. They estimate the average age at about 51, which will leave a void in the next 10 to 15 years for today's teens to fill.

Local schools increasingly encourage students to look beyond the fields themselves and pursue white-collar opportunities in oil and energy as managers, analysts, lawyers and engineers.

At Taft Union High School, educators launched what they call the nation's only college-preparatory program that offers students a career focus in petroleum.

Teachers acknowledge what's common local wisdom ' that oil is a fading dynasty in Kern County. But, they add, precisely because oil is harder to coax from the region's well-tapped fields, young minds must help discover better extraction methods or alternative fuel sources.

There's lots of opportunities in the energy industry, said Rick Woodson, the Taft Oil-Technology Academy's coordinator.