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What Pumpers or Oilfield Gaugers Do: Vital Oil Production Jobs

For several years I worked on drilling rigs on the Gulf Coast before moving on to another career.

In this photo, wind turbines and oil wells coexist on the rugged landscape of eastern New Mexico.

In this photo, wind turbines and oil wells coexist on the rugged landscape of eastern New Mexico.

What a Pumper Does: Important Oilfield Jobs

While electric vehicles are a promising and more environmentally friendly technology, most of us still fill our cars up with gasoline to get to work. We don't tend to think of where that fuel comes from. We might think that our gasoline is made from oil that arrived by tanker from some foreign country. That is even if we think about it at all.

The truth is that more than 90% of our motor fuel now comes from oil that's produced here in the U.S. by hardworking people who go to work each day just as you do. Oilfield "gaugers," or pumpers as they're sometimes called, travel daily over rough and muddy roads in all kinds of weather conditions to care for oil and gas wells each day, keeping them producing the energy that our society still runs on. Automation of oil and gas production is always ongoing, yet there are still many tasks that require workers to do hands-on work with production equipment.

Whether an oil or gas well is on land or offshore, it doesn't just sit there, producing its product day after day, without someone taking care of it. Work such as replacing parts on pumpjacks, checking tanks, or repairing compressors and other equipment requires a live person. The person that does this job is known as a production employee, pumper, or gauger in the oilfield.

Being an Oilfield Pumper Is a Hard Job

If the pumper is working on a land-based oilfield, such as in the Bakken Shale of North Dakota, their job may require them to be on call 24/7. If they're an independent contractor, days off may be far and few between.

Problems on a well location such as leaks, full tanks of oil that must be called in to be hauled, broken pumpjacks, gas compressors that quit working, etc., must be fixed immediately, or the oil company could potentially lose several thousand dollars per hour. Natural gas wells often freeze up during cold weather, and if enough of these do, then entire cities can lose their natural gas supply and leave many people freezing in their homes.

My own father worked as a gauger, and in the winter of 1988, he kept the wells that he cared for in Texas operating during a severe cold spell. The operator of the pipeline, which purchased the gas from the field he was working in, said that his wells were among only a handful that remained operating and supplying the city of San Antonio with natural gas during the severe weather. We don't tend to think of these people when we turn on our heaters or pay our gas bill, yet they are crucial to our economy and even our safety.

Oilfield pumpers such as my late father, who worked as an independent contractor, don't have the luxury of taking off whenever they want. They have to arrange for their own relief workers and trust them to keep things running smoothly. For this reason, many independent oilfield gaugers don't take time off very often.

Company pumpers, who are issued a fleet vehicle and paid a salary, often have the benefit of paid vacation time and a relief person to take over for them, yet they still are required to work long and odd hours when problems in the oilfield arise.

Kinds of Gauging and Pumping Jobs

There are a great variety of types of oil and gas wells, and therefore the job of a pumper or gauger varies greatly. A gauger working in the swamps of Louisiana may need a small workboat to travel to their wells, which may be located on islands or platforms in swamp country.

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A gauger in North Dakota may need to travel to some of their wells by snowmobile when the roads are otherwise impassible. In some places, a gauger may have to travel to remote oil well locations by airboat, helicopter, offshore crew boat, ATV, jeep, or whatever other kind of vehicle may be required.

Many Types of Wells That Gaugers Take Care Of

There are natural gas wells, oil wells, coal bed methane wells, and shale gas wells among others. A gauger may also have to help maintain injection wells, which inject CO2 or water into the oil-bearing formation to increase production.

An oilfield pumper or gauger may spend a lot of their time keeping pumpjacks running. Pumpjacks are the large "nodding donkeys" that you see in oil country, and they may run on electric motors or engines powered by propane or natural gas. They are highly complex machines that can require quite a lot of maintenance.

No Rest for an Oilfield Gauger

In the middle of the night, a pumper or gauger might get a call from a dispatcher in a monitoring station somewhere. Now, with automation, most oil and gas wells have a number of monitors and sensors which can alert workers to problems, such as a spill or equipment that's quit working.

No matter how remote the well might be, what the weather is, or what time of day or night it might be, they'll have to get up and drive out to the well and be prepared for just about kind of scenario.

A brilliant West Texas sunset, one of the perks of the job.

A brilliant West Texas sunset, one of the perks of the job.

Why Would Anyone Want This Job?

Oil and gas production employees are some of our country's unsung heroes, and they work long hours in all kinds of extreme conditions. If they're self-employed, they don't get paid for any overtime. Instead, they are paid a fixed amount each month for the wells they care for.

Despite the difficult nature of the job, it can pay quite well. An independent contractor may make up to $1,000 a month per well in some cases, and if they care for several dozen wells, it can be quite profitable. Company employees are also paid well and may be paid overtime, health benefits, and retirement. Salaries for oilfield pumpers or gaugers at the time this article was written ranged from $50,000 to $120,000 per year. (Source: American Petroleum Journal).

Instead of working at a desk in some cubicle of an office, your office may be a vast expanse of rugged outdoors, such as the shale fields of New Mexico or North Dakota. Each day on the job presents its own challenges yet offers new experiences and adventures that no office job can provide. For those who are self-starters, self-driven, and have a sense of adventure, oilfield production work can be the ideal career.

There is currently an increasing need for oilfield pumpers, yet it can take months if not years of education as well as on-the-job training to understand all of the complex equipment that is used in the oilfield. Persons wanting to know more about this job might want to read books such as the "Oil and Gas Production Handbook" to get more of an idea of what the job entails.

In many areas, there are community colleges, such as Coastal Bend College, in Beeville, Texas, that offer oil and gas production courses. Some of these courses are online. If you're interested in a career like this, I suggest you give books such as the one mentioned a try, as well as get in touch with one of these technical colleges and check out their programs.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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