By Ernest Scheyder
WILLISTON, N.D. (Reuters) - Halliburton Co, Schlumberger NV and other large energy companies were conspicuously absent from a major North Dakota job fair this week, a telling sign as employers in the No. 2 U.S. oil-producing state grapple with sliding crude prices.
Instead of roustabouts, the state's oil industry wants pump technicians, gas-processing plant operators and truck drivers to help sustain existing production of 1.2 million barrels of oil per day - not to necessarily grow production.
"When a well is out, you still have to service it," said Cindy Sanford of Job Service North Dakota, which helped organize the two-day job fair in Williston, capital of the state's oil boom. (There are almost 13,000 active wells in the state.)
The change in job type highlights the anxiety many oil producers and their service providers feel as they try to weather a more than 50 percent drop in crude prices since last summer. Halliburton was a key participant in last year's Williston job fair. Today, it's all but stopped regional hiring.
Contractors and local schools and water districts, among others, are offsetting the drop in oilfield employment as they hire in tandem with a rise in the region's population.
"People are coming here and staying here, and if they get laid off, they're cross-training for a new job," Sanford said.
There are 1,706 job openings in the Williston region, 350 more than a year ago. Despite the sliding oil prices, job openings actually rose in February from January, according to Job Service data.
General Electric Co wants pump technicians. Oneok Partners LP is looking for pipeline operators. Clean Harbors Inc, which operates the largest state landfill and does spill remediation, is hiring certified truck drivers.
They were among the largest of the 56 employers at the job fair, which had roughly 700 prospective employees each day. Participation was roughly the same as last year, organizers said.
"We're seeing oil workers that are laid off transition into construction work," said Kyle Tennessen of Command Center, a temporary work agency.
Oil executives say they're hunkering down until prices recover before they'll hire again. Many appear also to be waiting until June, hoping a more than $5 billion tax break kicks in.
"It you're expecting flat volumes during low oil prices, it doesn't make sense to increase your employment, at least not now," said one senior executive at a major North Dakota oil producer. "We're biding our time."
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Leslie Adler)