Curtis Bender was hit with the direct consequences of dropping oil prices but he is trying to find the brighter side

downturnthumb2“We were supposed to work all year around — our rig — and within the course of a week they told us that we didn’t have any work for spring. ‘Yeah, okay no big deal. We’ll work ’til April and shut ‘er down.’ That was November-ish. That’s when they started saying, ‘Hey guys we’re slowing down.’ Literally a week later we were just going to finish this year and we’ll see. Last day was January 8 I think. Over the course of two weeks it went from boom, boom, boom to we’re all getting laid off.”
– Curtis Bender, roughneck with Precision Drilling.

Curtis Bender, 22, a born and raised Calgarian, found his way into the oil industry through a chance encounter at a wedding about six months ago. He started talking to a guy he said was sharply dressed, wearing a gold chain, and working in the oil patch.

“He said he was on his week off and I just said, ‘Oh, no way. You lucky bastard, you work in the oil field?’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’”Bender4 EDITWorking as roughneck on an oilrig allowed Bender to pay off his new truck, but with nearly no warning he was left without a job as the downturn hit the industry.

Photo Courtesy of Curtis Bender

Bender had been trying to find his way to the oil field for six months, but without any luck as he was competing with others who had more experience. He had been doing fire proofing — installing fireproof insulation in buildings — for Zerodraft Calgary. But if he wanted to pay off his new truck and purchase a house in the next few years, Bender said he’d need something more.

The chance encounter with an oil worker translated into a job opportunity the very next day.

“I didn’t believe him but I was super stoked and I gave the guy my name and number,” said Bender. “Sure enough the next morning my phone rings. ‘Oh my god this is amazing.’”

Bender answered some questions over the phone, completed a physical test in Calgary and he said within three days, he was working for Precision Drilling. The oilfield service company provides customers with contract drilling, well servicing and strategic support services.

At first, Bender said it was tough to get used to the full 12-hour days, seven days a week in the Bonnyville and Cold Lake, Alta. area. When he started six months ago it was summer — it was hot, tiring work putting in the hours on the rig in 25 C heat. Then winter rolled around and it was -45 C with the wind blowing. Perseverance was critical.

“Gotta get out there. The rig won’t shut down until -70 C,” Bender said.

Bender described the work was brutal and intense, and mentioned that if it weren’t for the money in the oil patch, no one would be working there. But for many like Bender the money was incentive enough.

Bender5 EDITFor many oil companies the first cuts to be made are to their exploration budgets. Curtis Bender was one of the unlucky people to be left without a job once the price of oil fell.

Photo Courtesy of Curtis Bender“It was pretty good especially when payday came around it was you know, ‘Hey hop in that mud pit.’” Bender said with a laugh, “Yes sir!”

Once the downturn hit, Bender’s position working in exploration was the first to go. Although Bender was new to the business and low on the seniority ladder, once the price of oil started dropping it didn’t matter because oil companies weren’t looking to drill new holes. Bender said it seemed everyone on his rig was going home.

“It was real frustrating, man, when everyone around me is saying, ‘Ah sweet I’m saving so much money on gas!’ I’m like — Oh you know that’s great, I saved 10 bucks on gas but I’ve got no job to show for it.”

Newly laid off, he made the most of his new situation. He said that many of his coworkers’ wives and girlfriends were excited to have their partners return home. The stress of being away took its toll on his relationship as well, but coming home gave him the opportunity to start patching up things in his relationship.

“It was kinda stressful, leaving her behind two weeks at a time. Now that I’m home [in Calgary] again things are a lot better,” Bender said.

Bender has found himself in a more fortunate situation than many of the other guys he worked with. With his truck paid off he’s debt-free and without a family to provide for, he said he’s one of the luckier ones.

“Everybody up there has a wife at home, kids at home. I never ran into one single guy up there — like everyone has people at home they’re trying to support. We’re all getting laid off and it’s a bummer deal, man.”

“I’m one of the luckier guys. I don’t have a lot of expenses at the end of the month, no other mouths to feed,” Bender said.Bender2 EDITCurtis Bender’s optimistic personality has helped him stay positive after his recent lay-off.

Photo Courtesy of Curtis Bender

As for what’s next, he said he has two options. There’s the potential that the work will start up again in late fall or early winter in which case he could work odd jobs for eight months.

Option two involves a career change.
“It’s kind of a gamble if you want to start a new career or if you want to wait around. If you start a new career and the office calls you and you say ‘no’ they are never calling you again.”

An opportunity in the movie industry has presented itself and Bender said there is a chance he could get a job as a sound person on a film set. He has had training in music and sound and even attended school in New York for sound production. Bender said this could be a dream career move for him.

“All the cards are lined up for something I’ve really wanted to do for a really long time. Now that I’ve got a couple good contacts in the movie industry, even if it’s not in sound I’ve got contacts that I could get on as an extra in Fargo or whatever. Just get in. Even if you’re being a goofy clown in the background, experience is experience and that counts more than anything.”

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Read this Calgary Journal special report for an in-depth comparison between Jim Prentice’s response to the current drop in oil prices and Don Getty’s response in the 1980s.

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