Living through Times of Boom and Bust


Growing up in West Texas, I am familiar with cycles of boom and bust. During high school many of my friends dropped out to work in the oil fields where the work was hard and dangerous, but the profits high. 

Some were killed and many were mangled, but their pockets were filled with more cash than they could spend. Oil embargoes had pushed the price of crude to new highs, and oil companies could not find enough people to tap, drill, pump and refine the fuel of progress.

In only a year, our small town of 100,000 people doubled to nearly 200,000. Public utilities strained to keep up with the demand for water and basic necessities, and housing was hard to find. People built new homes that were palatial in scale, and sun-scarred, wind-blown faces bragged of conquests and adventure.

My parents were different. Seasoned by experience, they continued a modest lifestyle and invested additional earnings into our future through savings and investments. They had been through booms before, but more importantly, they had also survived times of bust. My parents lived through the Great Depression, WW II, and the dust bowl years. They survived by holding a steady course when everything around them was changing, by adapting to challenges as they came along, and by constantly refreshing their skill base through learning.

Within three years, the embargo was lifted and the price of crude plummeted. Almost overnight the pumpjacks stopped pumping, drilling ceased, and the refineries shut down. It simply cost too much to produce gasoline from Texas crude when compared to the going market price.

People were unable to make their house and car payments, and the shopping malls emptied of patrons. Many people went bankrupt, and my friends who had dropped out of school to ride the wave of prosperity were left high and dry without marketable skills when that wave crested and crashed. The population of the region dropped precipitously and buildings stood empty.

In more recent times, our economy has become more robust showing moderate to appreciable growth. Our unemployment rates have dropped, and economic measures indicate a positive future. However, challenges remain and bubbles of instability can be expected. One such bubble imploded last week with the shut down of Pfizer facilities in Ann Arbor, MI. Approximately 2,500 people are out of work in Michigan and 10,000 worldwide must now find ways to support themselves and their families while looking for another job.

Unlike my high school classmates, these former Pfizer employees have invested wisely in themselves and their futures. They are well trained and have valuable skills. However, their road will not be easy. Many will have to relocate diffusing into the Greater Detroit Area or beyond.

As a Society, it is our responsibility to help them through this transition. Those most impacted by this abrupt change in their lives know they can turn to ACS for the excellent guidance and counsel we have offered our members for over 130 years. 

ACS is responding with Career Workshops, Counseling, and access to the Chemjobs.org database. Additional resources concerning writing resumes, interviewing and targeting the job market are also available online through the ACS Careers Website.

My home town has recovered from the last big bust and is thriving under better economic times. However, scars are still visible both in the town and its people. Ann Arbor will recover as well, but it will take time and anguish before it is done.

It behooves us all to take a few simple steps to prepare for our future:

  • actively manage your professional development through learning,
  • keep your resumes up-to-date and
  • keep in contact with the people in your personal network.

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of ACS Career Management and Development. Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter Jan. 29, 2007.

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