The great crew change is coming. And executives in the oil and natural-gas industry can only hope they're ready for the departure of thousands...

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The great crew change is coming.

And executives in the oil and natural-gas industry can only hope they’re ready for the departure of thousands of aging employees who will retire over the next decade after years working onshore and aboard offshore rigs.

To prepare for this exodus, energy corporations have begun recruiting college graduates and experienced workers to replace their departing laborers.

“The work force of the industry, in large part, are the folks that were hired back in the late ’70s and early to mid-’80s, and many are approaching retirement eligibility,” said Tom Broom, operations learning and development manager at the Shell Robert Training & Conference Center.

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“What we’re trying to get ahead of here is the great crew change,” he said, mentioning the trade lingo used to describe the mass retirement of industry baby boomers.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 56 percent of workers in the oil and gas industry are between 35 and 54 years old. With 55 years serving as the average industry retirement age, more than half the oil and natural-gas employee base will leave over the next decade, according to an analysis produced by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

All jobs in the industry will be affected, but technical and professional positions like those of engineers and scientists are likely to bear the brunt of the impact because it takes longer for them to receive necessary training and job experience, Broom said.

Energy companies are wooing replacement workers with strong salaries and easy access to training.

Shell, the largest oil company now operating in New Orleans, decided during the industry’s lean years of the ’80s to invest in a training facility to help attract and recruit future workers.

Last year, the facility, a miniature college campus for prospective oil-industry employees, provided room, board and salary for 3,000 students per month who attended classes, labs and training sessions there, Broom said. The facility grooms interns for employment with Shell and with other energy corporations in a bid to increase the number of new employees in the field, he said.

Just last year, the Robert facility partnered with Louisiana State University’s Center for Petroleum Workforce Development to recruit graduates and offer training and employment possibilities to keep the industry in state, Broom said.

McMoRan Exploration has heard of other energy companies partnering with universities and offering scholarships to would-be employees, but McMoRan spokesman Bill Collier wrote in an e-mail the company is not yet at a point where its executives need to recruit younger employees.

The past several years have been good for oil and natural gas, which has increased the number of students and employees interested in joining the field, experts say.

“We’ve had this bit of a boom in the industry for the last couple of years,” Broom said. “It’s actually accelerated some of the issues we were preparing for.”

Increases in crude-oil and natural-gas prices have required more workers, both offshore and onshore, to complete a multitude of new projects, Broom said.

The future looks good for industry employees, as well, he said.

Most experts see strong demand for the commodities because of economic development in rising nations like India and China, he said.

“It’s an incredibly good time to be interested in joining the oil and gas industry at all levels, but I would say especially in the operations ranks,” he said.