Instead, the exporter group, which accounts for a third of global oil supplies, let prices slide to 12-year lows, piling pressure on U.S. producers, many of whom rely on expensive advanced drilling methods to unlock oil and gas from shale rock formations.
Since then, the industry has shed hundreds of thousands of workers around the world as employers tightened their belts. About 250 North American drillers and oil field services companies have filed for bankruptcy, according to a count by law firm Haynes & Boone.
Drillers began steadily putting up new oil rigs last summer as prices stabilized above $40 a barrel, and later, above $50 after OPEC and other producers finally agreed to cut output. Lower costs and more efficient drilling methods have also contributed to a recovery in U.S. drilling.
U.S. energy companies are now adding employees, particularly in areas like Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, where crude can be drilled at relatively low costs.
Last week, LinkedIn reported hiring in the oil and energy sector among people on its platform was 30 percent higher in April than a year ago. Cities that have seen hiring rev up include Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Pittsburgh, the data show.
Head count should remain on an upswing so long as oil prices stay where they are today — around $50 a barrel — said Guy Berger, an economist at LinkedIn.
Piper-Morgan, the Houston recruiter, reports it has done as much business in the first four months of this year as it did in all of 2016. Darroh said the firm believes the worst may be over.
“We’re pretty optimistic that we’ve seen the bottom and we’ll continue to grind upwards, barring any unforeseen precipitous drop in crude prices below $40,” he told CNBC. U.S. crude was changing hands at around $46 a barrel on Monday.
That tone of cautious optimism is prevalent throughout the industry, a survey of hiring managers by recruiting firm Airswift and online job board Energy Jobline suggests.
Less than one-third of energy hiring managers anticipate the industry will recover in the next 12 months, while 44 percent of workers expect a rebound in that time.
The prospects for a stable recovery became clouded last week, as oil prices posted a third straight weekly loss, dropping on Thursday to levels not seen since before OPEC agreed to cut production last November. U.S. crude futures extended those losses in overnight trading on Friday, dropping as low as $43.76 a barrel in a sort of “flash crash.”
Analysts told CNBC the sell-off was fueled by computerized trading and forced selling as oil futures crashed through a number of technical levels. Thursday’s lows likely represent a near-term bottom, they say.
Still, some drillers will find their profit margins coming under pressure if crude prices trade around $45 a barrel, said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Service.