Addressing Cyclical Unemployment in the Oil Industry

Sheldon Landsberger

Workers in the Texas oil and gas fields can earn high wages when the industry is booming.  But during the inevitable “bust” periods that follow booms, large numbers of employees are laid off, leaving the employees and their families in vulnerable, difficult positions.

The communities that depend on the oil and gas industry for their livelihood and suffer loss of revenue during busts are also hit by a high demand for services for the unemployed.  Further, rural communities in this situation have to worry about losing their young people as they flock to city centers during busts, many never to return back home.

Boom and bust in the oil and gas exploration sector: A cyclical curve representing periods of prosperity and unemployment.
Boom and bust in the oil and gas exploration sector: A cyclical curve representing periods of prosperity and unemployment.

In a project funded by IC² and enthusiastically supported by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), I am developing options for the young people of these communities—possibilities that may allow them to stay in the communities that raised them while pursuing careers with more stability than the ebb and flow of extraction work in the fields.  Our Rural Innovation Incubator, or RI², program is creating curricula for high school and community college students that will enable them to work in oil and gas related occupations needed on a consistent basis by the industry.

For example, the industry needs people with expertise in the maintenance of rigs and pipelines and people who can provide ongoing environmental services.  The industry also needs to rely on a variety of small businesses that can fill these voids with local talent.

Our curriculum will enable students to learn:

  • the economic and business skills required to manage a business in the oil industry
  • the skills required to grow and invest as small business owners in the oil industry
  • the business challenges, necessities and operations of oil field remediation
  • the health and environmental effects of oil extraction.
  • the tools and methods behind decontamination, waste prevention and ecological restoration.

Although the pandemic has delayed travel to West Texas to meet with administrators and teachers, we will be moving forward this year to complete fully detailed curricula for two community-college courses that could be tried out as early as next fall.  Our next steps are to confirm community colleges in the Texas’ Permian Basin and community college instructors ready to work from our detailed curricula.  After what we hope will be successful implementation of the courses in the fall, we will propose to TEA further implementation at the high school level in 2022.

The Rural Innovation Incubator is one step in the right direction to enable the self-sufficiency of rural communities in the oil-rich areas of West Texas.  I hope that this step will lead to a lessening of the unemployment that hits communities during downturns in the oil and gas industry. Furthermore, I believe that our curricula and plan can also serve as a model for other types of entrepreneurial education in the region. 

This blog is part of the IC² Institute Faculty Research Program which catalyzes the multi-disciplinary research across several schools and disciplines at the University of Texas at Austin that focus on communities beyond urban corridors in Texas, U.S., and beyond. IC² supports broad-based research that can reveal new avenues for business, philanthropy, and government that enhance economic opportunities for communities.

IC² Institute currently supports 13 UT Austin faculty research projects, 2019-2021. For more info on faculty research or our work, please see Faculty Research Program or contact us:


Posted on

January 25, 2021

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