Oil Jobs Are Big Risk, Big Pay. Green Energy Offers Stability And Passion
Workers in the energy sector face two paths: The oil industry offers big salaries but more volatility, while clean energy pays less but provides more stability and a sense of mission.
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.