Oil Jobs Are Big Risk, Big Pay. Green Energy Offers Stability And PassionOctober 21, 2020
Justin Sullivan and Spencer Platt
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 economic 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 upcoming report commissioned by E2.
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…