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Career moves for laid-off auto workers

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Kai Ryssdal: General Motors said today it's going to shut down some of its factories for an extra week or two this year over the winter holiday. The company's been laying off workers at plants and offices all around the country for months now, including the second shift in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the same time, the natural gas industry in that part of the state is hiring. So there are going to be jobs for some of the laid-off autoworkers. If they can hack 'em. Kate Archer Kent of Red River Radio has our story.


Kate Archer Kent: Chesapeake Energy is drilling 600 exploratory wells in northwest Louisiana and east Texas. It's looking for natural gas trapped in a geologic formation called the Haynesville Shale. It blipped onto energy producers' radar this year. And that could mean a gusher of jobs. Chesapeake's Kevin McCotter:

Kevin McCotter: It's potentially the largest natural gas field in the United States. And we're scaling up in a major way.

McCotter says Chesapeake will hire about 700 workers to staff new drilling rigs. And as many as 2,000 other jobs could be created to support the operations. Many of those jobs are likely to go to former GM employees.

McCotter: Those employees have had experience in assembly line work, working in teams -- both hard and soft skills -- that are required for success on a drilling rig.

About 1,200 auto workers in and around Shreveport were laid off over the last two months. Many resurfaced at oil and gas production job fairs. Jodee Niswanger is with the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. She's been surveying energy companies to find out what jobs they need to fill.

Jodee Niswanger: I think that there is going to be a lot of competition for these jobs simply because they're high-paying jobs, they're reliable jobs, and they're with reputable companies.

But rig jobs usually mean 12-hour shifts, aching backs and workers are often required to live on site. That's not the lifestyle that Lonnie Mitchell desires. He lost his job at a GM parts supplier in September.

Recently, the 48-year-old father of two applied for unemployment assistance in a roomful of former co-workers also looking for help. Mitchell once worked in oil production. He used to guide heavy equipment down oil wells. And for now, it's a career he'd rather not go back to.

Lonnie Mitchell: You were on call all the time. You never know when you would come back from the oil field, go right back out there and do another job. It's not like an 8-to-5 job.

Many applicants don't have oil experience. But, even if auto workers make the career leap, they're faced with a boom-and-bust industry. Louisiana economist Loren Scott:

Loren Scott: Right now, the jobs are desperately needed in the oil and gas extraction industry. But, going into that, people just have to know it is an industry that's subject to wild swings.

Right now, exploration companies are banking on an upswing in energy prices. And they hope to have workers hired, trained and ready to drill when that happens.

In Shreveport, I'm Kate Archer Kent for Marketplace.

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