A little girl we helped raise is now married and in her Forties. Her husband, Mike, is a pumper and has a hard time staying employed. I should give him a call and tell him to quit looking. Here’s why:

My first job in the oilfield launched in June 1979. A few months later, I was assigned to ride with Robert Bilbo, the cementer awarded with the job of teaching young engineers how to cement.  We pulled into the Crescent City Café well before dawn, and the parking lot was full of nondescript white work pickups -- nondescript because none had a company logo or name on the door.  
“Pumpers,” Robert said. Guys who had contracted with oil companies to swing by every well every day to check on the equipment, read the gauges, and fix whatever needed fixing. I thought it sounded like a pretty sweet gig, albeit a bit boring.
I’ve been thinking about pumpers and production foremen lately because, in this new world of rapidly rising oil output, these guys are counter-intuitively losing their jobs.

Take a look at this graph of new wells drilled in the US each year:

At the peak of the oil boom in 1981, 100,000 brand new oil wells were added to the fleet of 600,000 mouse-fart producing wells in the US. If 1 pumper could handle 50 wells, that meant jobs for 14,000 pumpers across the US.  

20 years later we drilled 40,000 wells, and today, 20 years after that, 10,000 wells. At the same time, automation and remote monitoring has eliminated the daily visit. Plus, tough environmental regulations cause just as many wells to be plugged and abandoned each year as are newly drilled, so the well population isn’t growing. So maybe 1 pumper can now handle 200 wells. Does this mean we have just 4,000 pumper jobs?  3,500 jobs?

If it is possible that technology will drive the US toward just 4,000 new wells in 2041, and just 1,000 in 2061, that would mean that 80% of the pumper jobs have disappeared. A job role in the industry would become all but extinct. So long to the waiting white pickups.

Pumpers are the dinosaurs of the oilpatch, pushed out by technology that gets there faster, cheaper, and better. Whereas tribal knowledge of a local oilpatch maintains its value, the tribal on-scene assessment is taken over by instruments.