They served our country. Now they’re using their military training and skills to help produce oil and gas for California’s needs
When Ray Labbe retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, he was a major with 25 years in the military.
The seasoned officer had seen active duty in Desert Storm in 1991. Labbe had later fought in Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq, where he served as a company commander. An expert in weapons, tactics and strategy, Labbe went on to a team that advised Iraqi security forces.
Ready for retirement and a move back to civilian life, Labbe was confident he would find a job.
“I had a lot of experience in leadership, communication and problem-solving,” says Labbe, who’d also earned a bachelor’s degree in English along the way.
At a job fair in Southern California in mid-2013, he interviewed with energy industry employers, including Aera. A month later, Labbe was hired as a purchasing specialist at Aera’s Bakersfield headquarters.
“I didn’t know anything about oil or Aera when I interviewed for the job,” Labbe remembers. “But I liked the people here.”
Today, Labbe is one of at least 82 military veterans who work for Aera. These men and women have served all over the world, in all branches of the U.S. armed forces. Some saw combat duty on the front lines while others served in vital support roles in transportation, logistics, computers, mechanics, administration and more.
What the military gave all of them, they say, were profound life experiences and a valuable education in collaboration, responsibility and self-discipline. Those attributes are essential at Aera, one of California’s largest oil and gas producers.
“Military veterans know how to get things done,” says Labbe, who works with Aera’s project managers to identify the right contracting strategy for construction projects such as new wells, pipelines, tanks and other oilfield facilities.
From the front lines to Aera
Unlike Labbe, Jake Cosper wasn’t sure he’d find rewarding work after his military service. The Bakersfield native served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2006-10, including two deployments to Iraq. After returning to civilian life, he was turned down for a job as a police officer. He found work operating heavy equipment in Kern County oilfields. But it wasn’t the career he sought. Friends pointed him to Aera.
“They told me about all the great things at Aera, about its culture and how well employees are treated,” Cosper says. “I thought it was a shot in the dark because I didn’t have production experience. They kept telling me to apply.”
Cosper did. In 2012, Aera hired him as reliability specialist at its Belridge field and quickly advanced to lead reliability specialist. In early 2019, he was promoted to process specialist at Belridge, where he oversees 15 Aera employees, 1,500 producing wells and 20 pump stations. Together, he and his team make sure the day-to-day operations of Aera’s largest oilfield run safely and efficiently.
“My military experience touches all aspects of my work at Aera: leadership, teamwork, work ethic, handling stressful situations, self-motivation and listening to others,” says Cosper.
The former Marine is one year away from earning his bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Phoenix. Aera will reimburse him for his tuition.
“Aera understands and values what veterans contribute to the company,” Cosper says.
Finance, not jets
Another veteran with valuable experience is Megan Arriaga. For the past six years, she has reported for duty one weekend a month to the California Air National Guard Base in Fresno, home to the 144th Fighter Wing.
“I don’t fly jets,” says Arriaga, a staff sergeant. “I do finance.”
Her weekend duty in the base’s financial office gave Arriaga time to earn a bachelor’s degree in finance from California State University-Bakersfield in 2016. She then worked for a Bakersfield accounting firm before accepting a position at Aera last year. Arriaga is a full-time accounting technical associate in Aera’s eCommerce department. She works closely with Aera vendors on pricing for materials, equipment and labor.
“Working at the base gave me an edge in experience and knowledge,” says Arriaga, who will complete her military service in November 2020.
Born in California and raised in Mexico, Alex Villavicencio served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1997-2001. “I enlisted because I wanted to give back to this country, which has given me so much,” he says.
With Camp Pendleton as his base, he served on a ship in the volatile waters of the Middle East.
After his service ended, Villavicencio worked different jobs before learning about Aera at a Southern California job fair. Aera hired him in 2008 to work at its Huntington Beach property. When that facility was sold, Aera offered Villavicencio employment at its Ventura field. A production operator there since 2011, he helps oversee 80 wells and other facilities as part of a 10-member team.
“In the Marine Corps, I learned how to follow standard operating procedures,” says Villavicencio. “I learned leadership skills, how to take the initiative, how to be more proactive than reactive.”
Helping fellow veterans through VALOR
In addition to their daily work, these former service members have found another mission with Veterans of Aera Leveraging Our Resources, better known as VALOR. The employee resource group counts 135 members, including 47 veterans. VALOR’s goal is to support those who have served in the armed services. Labbe will become its chairman early next year.
VALOR members participate in local Memorial Day and Veterans Day activities. These events include guest speakers, veterans’ panels and access to various organizations that help veterans with housing, medical and other services.
“When you leave the military, it doesn’t leave you,” Villavicencio says. “You need to find a purpose. Aera make us feel valued, that it’s there for us. Through VALOR, we can still have that camaraderie with other veterans.”