Phillips studied the image on his workstation screen and frowned.
The object of his disapproval was a picture of a three-dimensional, multicolored layer cake that appeared to have been severely mashed, crumpled and cracked. The image actually depicted a thick, oil-bearing slab of earth, buried about 3,000 feet below sea level, a couple of miles away from his high-rise office in downtown Long Beach.
"This obviously looks wrong," said Phillips, chief geologist for Tidelands Oil Production Co., pointing an accusatory cursor at a rumple in the gray layer. "See how it looks like a hill? That shouldn't be there.
"I can fix it immediately," he said. Minutes later, Phillips had traced the problem to a clerical data entry error, typed in the correct mathematical coordinates derived from previous drilling records and smoothed out the offending hillock.
In today's petroleum exploration and production industry, accuracy is literally worth millions of dollars. Geologists such as Phillips are using cutting-edge computer technology to help achieve it.
Phillips, who has worked for Tidelands for 16 years, welcomes the challenge. He's already distinguished himself as a survivor of downsizing in an industry that lost an estimated 500,000 jobs over the last decade.
He attributes his longevity in great part to his willingness throughout the years to put in countless hours of his own time mastering new computer systems and programs. When the company bought its first computer in 1986, he bought one to use at home and took computer classes on his own.
Nowadays, job-seeking geologists are expected to have computer-mapping skills, or be able to acquire them quickly, experts say.
"If you can't do it, in a few years you won't be able to find a job as a geologist," said Mark Wilson, past president of the Pacific Section of the American Assn. of American Geologists.
Observers say the industry's employment outlook is picking up, because of an increase in the price of oil and other factors.
"This is the first year in many that a significant number of the major oil companies are returning to college campuses to recruit," said Marcus Milling, executive director of the American Geological Institute.
Geologists working in the petroleum industry are the highest-paid of all geologists, with a median income of $85,300, according to a survey by the American Institute of Professional Geologists.
A word of advice to geologists in search of work: Don't bother applying for Phillips' position.
"This is a terrific job and I'm not letting it go," he says.
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Bio: Chris Phillips
Job: Chief geologist
Employer: Tidelands Oil Production Co., Long Beach
Experience: 1981 to present at Tidelands
Other jobs: 1980-81, managed a Long Beach pool and patio store; math tutor and youth counselor in college
Education: Bachelor's in Geology, Cal State Long Beach. Courses toward a master's in geology, Cal State L.A.