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Oil Jobs Are Big Risk, Big Pay. Green Energy Offers Stability And Passion

Oct 21, 2020
Originally published on October 22, 2020 5:47 pm

In 2008, Daimon Rhea moved to Utah to find work in the oil fields. He didn't have any experience — and he didn't need any.

"I was out there for two days and I had a job making about $30 an hour," he says. He started as a roughneck, doing hard physical labor on drilling sites, and easily pulled in double what he could have earned back home in California.

"I was able to turn my life around," Rhea says.

It wasn't easy — the hours were rough as a single dad — but Rhea was making great money.

But he started to get weary of the repeated rounds of layoffs as the industry went through its boom and bust cycles. Rhea eventually walked away from the high pay of the oil fields and found work in construction instead.

"I was tired of living by just the cost of a barrel," he says. "My life depended on how much that barrel cost."

Oil and gas jobs are lucrative but volatile. They can create incredible opportunities, particularly for workers without college degrees, but they can disappear at the drop of a spot price.

Energy jobs have become a major issue in the 2020 campaign, with climate change likely to be a topic in the debate Thursday between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump has repeatedly vowed to defend oil and gas jobs against efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Meanwhile, Biden is promising to shift away from fossil fuels and create new "clean energy" jobs in renewable electricity and energy efficiency.

For now, times are tough whether you're working in oil or clean energy. Huge layoffs have shrunk the workforce across both sectors by more than 15 percent.

But millions of Americans are still employed in the energy sector, and a major transition in how we power our economy would affect what jobs are available.

Clean energy jobs pay better than the typical U.S. job, up to 25% more or some $2-$5 more per hour, according to recent research from Brookings and an new report commissioned by a group of clean energy organizations.

But petroleum jobs pay more like 40% over the median, according to the U.S. Energy and Employment Report — and extraction jobs on drilling sites pay nearly double the national median, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, clean energy jobs are also less volatile, says Julia Pollak, a labor economist at job postings site Ziprecruiter.

"You just have a straight sort of linear trend in most of those occupations over time, not the wild fluctuations that you see in oil," she says.

Jobs in energy efficiency — working to make buildings easier to cool and heat — have historically been relatively stable, too.

That's the main reason Chris Martinez got into the industry nine years ago. He had been a roofer, and was frustrated with the seasonal nature of that work. Like Rhea in the Utah oil fields, he turned to a job that didn't require any expertise to start out.

"I'd never stepped foot in an attic," he says, laughing. "I didn't know what ductwork was."

Martinez appreciates the stability of his new industry. And, he says, it's nice to work for a company driven by a passion for sustainability.

Pollak of ZipRecruiter says that sense of purpose is used by clean energy companies to recruit workers. In job postings, "the overall goal and mission of these jobs is really clear," she says. "Very aspirational goals to save the planet."

Joe Green, who grew up in Pennsylvania coal country, understands firsthand the power of an environmental mission. His grandfather was a miner; he says coal raised, fed and educated him. The devastation it created surrounded him, too.

Green had worked in wind energy for years, then briefly had a stint hauling coal. One day, he got a phone call while he was sitting in his truck, right after finishing a run.

"Close your eyes and imagine," he says. "Here's this truck that is on top of a big, black bank ... there's the spoil piles to the north. To the south is the co-generation plant that burns the waste coal. There's a crusher there, dust everywhere. It's just dirty."

He could see the local damage done by the industry — streams that had been dead his whole life, but which he had to imagine were beautiful once. He couldn't see the carbon emissions, but he thought about them, too. He thought about it a lot.

He picked up the phone. It was a colleague calling to ask if he'd be interested in getting back into renewables — solar, this time. It wasn't a hard choice for him.

Other workers in fossil fuel industries, though, might be facing the more difficult decision to accept lower pay — if they can even find a new job.

But Rhea, the former oil worker who started a new career in construction, sees the energy landscape shifting. He encourages his former colleagues to get creative instead of getting angry.

"It's like they're mailmen getting mad at email," he says. "Times are changing. You have to adapt."

NPR's Adedayo Akala contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the topics in tonight's presidential debate will be climate change. President Trump says he'll defend oil and gas jobs. Former Vice President Joe Biden focuses on new green jobs that could be created. NPR's Camila Domonoske asks what it would mean for workers if the U.S. has fewer drilling rigs and more wind farms.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: In 2008, Daimon Rhea moved to Utah to find work in the oil fields. He had no expertise.

DAIMON RHEA: So I was out there for two days, and I had a job making about $30 an hour.

DOMONOSKE: He was a roughneck doing hard labor at drill sites, and he made double what he could have earned back home in California.

RHEA: I was able to turn my life around, for sure.

DOMONOSKE: He switched into oilfield service, worked his way up.

RHEA: The money was great.

DOMONOSKE: The hours were tough as a single dad. But what drove him out of the industry back in 2014 was the volatility. Jobs would come and go as the price of oil changed.

RHEA: I was tired of living by just the cost of a barrel. My life depended on how much that barrel cost. It's ridiculous.

DOMONOSKE: Now he's a welding inspector working in construction. That's oil and gas jobs in a nutshell. They pay exceptionally well - extraction jobs pay nearly double the median wage - but it's always been a boom and bust industry. Trump's backing hasn't changed that. As for clean energy jobs, analysts have found they pay up to $5 more on average than the typical U.S. job - good, but not as good as oil. But they're also less volatile, says Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.

JULIA POLLAK: You just have a, you know, a straight, sort of linear trend, not the wild fluctuations that you see in oil.

DOMONOSKE: That's true for renewables, like solar and wind power. People drive less during bad economic times, but they still turn the lights on at home.

POLLAK: Electricity usage is much more stable than gasoline usage.

DOMONOSKE: And it's also true for jobs in energy efficiency, making buildings easier to cool and heat. When Biden talks about creating new clean energy jobs, a lot of them are jobs like these. Chris Martinez entered the field nine years ago. Like Rhea hitting the oil fields, he didn't have prior experience.

CHRIS MARTINEZ: Nothing. Nothing at all. (Laughter) I'd never stepped foot in an attic. I didn't know what ductwork or air conditioning was.

DOMONOSKE: OK. He knew what air conditioning was. He lives in Phoenix, Ariz., after all. But he'd never worked with it. And that first job didn't pay oil money, but it was steady, unlike his previous job as a roofer. And...

MARTINEZ: You know, the owner of the company, they had a passion for this. And I love that.

DOMONOSKE: Neither Biden nor Trump emphasize a sense of purpose when they talk about jobs. But Julia Pollak from ZipRecruiter says that clean energy companies really highlight their mission in their job postings. For Joe Green, that mission is not abstract. He grew up in Pennsylvania coal country. His grandfather was a miner.

JOE GREEN: I was raised, fed, educated and everything in some ways through the coal industry. And I think that was, you know, fine for then, but now we know better.

DOMONOSKE: Green has worked in wind and solar, but he also hauled coal for a little while. He remembers looking out from his dump truck.

GREEN: You know, here's this truck that is on top of a black - big black bank. To the south is the co-generation plant that burns the waste coal - dust everywhere.

DOMONOSKE: It was impossible not to think about the environmental impact of what he did every day. He was sitting in that truck when he got a phone call asking if he wanted to go back to working in renewables. It was an easy choice. Now he feels good about working in solar.

Some workers might find it hard to transition out of a traditional energy job because of a skills mismatch, location or a big pay cut. But Daimon Rhea says his former colleagues should get creative instead of getting angry.

RHEA: It's like - they're like mailmen getting mad at email. Times are changing, so you have to adapt.

DOMONOSKE: Both oil and gas and clean energy have seen huge layoffs during this pandemic. And, of course, oil has come back from many crashes before. But no matter who wins the White House, there's a sense of optimism in the clean energy world and a lot of uncertainty about the future for oil.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

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