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Union Workers: Jobs in Oil & Natural Gas Provide Stability, Opportunity

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Oil and natural gas industry construction jobs – both union and non-union – provide higher pay, health and pension benefits compared to other industries, especially for Americans without a college degree, according to two recent studies commissioned by  the North America Building Trades Unions.

NABTU, an alliance of 14 American and Canadian building and construction unions, used both qualitative and quantitative data to show the clear career benefits and advantages provided by jobs in the oil and natural gas industry.

Cicero Group conducted a qualitative analysis titled Perspectives and Comparisons of Job Quality Across the US Energy Industries. The Cicero Group study researched workers’ perceptions through 22 in-depth interviews with tradespeople, 8 focus groups, and an online survey with 1,600 respondents conducted from October 2019 to February 2020.  second study, a quantitative analysis titled The Quality of Jobs in Construction and Oil-and-Gas for High School Graduates, was conducted by Professor Peter Philips, an economics professor at the University of Utah and Research Scholar for the Institute of Construction Economic Research.

Oil and Natural Gas vs. Renewables

The Cicero Group study revealed important benefits and opportunities provided by the oil and natural gas industry, especially in comparison with the renewable energy industry.

Source: NABTU Construction Job Quality Across the US Energy Industries

Compared to renewable energy positions, construction workers say that the oil and natural gas industry provides better careers in terms of pay, duration and project consistency, skill development and project variety. Sean McGarvey, President of NABTU, explained:

“The research confirms what our members tell us: the career opportunities for renewables are nowhere near what they are in gas and oil, and domestic energy workers highly value the safety, reliable duration and compensation of oil and gas construction jobs.”

A union electrician explains the difference regarding skill development in oil and natural gas versus renewables jobs:

“In refineries there’s always new technology in production…Wind you only have wind, solar you only have solar. There’s not anything really new that you can do with it other than it just runs a cell, or it blows the wind turbine blades. But lots of different things in the petrochemical world change radically. And with those [radical changes] they have to do lots of upgrades to those units.”

Other respondents noted that the consistent maintenance and upgrades necessary for oil and natural gas projects guarantee more consistent work than, for example, a solar plant or wind farm.

Tradespeople reported no significant difference in commute duration and time away from home in overtime and work travel for oil and natural gas jobs compared to renewable energy projects. Workplace safety and injury rates are also consistent between the two sectors.

“These are not simply jobs, they’re careers”

The studies found that jobs in the energy sector provide Americans without a college degree a pathway into middle class careers. As Dr. Tom Kriger, Director of Research at NABTU, AFL-CIO, said:

“These are not simply jobs, they’re careers, and built into these careers are educational opportunities that are not available to most Americans.”

The Cicero Group survey even found that alumni of registered apprenticeship programs, the primary training program for tradespeople in the energy sector, were more satisfied with their program than the alumni of most Ivy League schools.

Other key findings illustrating workers’ perceptions of the benefits of careers in the oil and natural gas industry include:

  • Skilled trade jobs are not highly interchangeable between the two industries, because many of the trades that work on oil and natural gas projects are less predominant on renewables projects.
  • Oil and gas projects offer better benefits compared to renewables. In the words of one non-union floor installer, “I prefer to work in oil because I have opportunities to get better compensation and benefits.”

Middle Class Aspirations

Professor Philips’s research concluded that workers without a college degree have more opportunities for a rising paycheck in the oil and natural gas industry compared to high school graduates in the overall economy. As Philips explains:

“As the overall economy shifts from goods production to a service economy, and as work shifts from blue collar production work to white collar service work, most young people are urged to go to college. Those who stopped at high school are seen as trapped in low paying jobs. But those who go into construction and the oil and natural gas industries can, in fact, reach the middle class.”

Careers in oil and natural gas for individuals without a college degree are more lucrative in the long-term compared to the solar industry, Philips found. While wages for electrical apprentices were lower than those for solar installers at the start of their careers, after five years the electrical apprentice earns, on average, one-third more than the solar installer. As a journey worker, an electrician will take home 50 percent more than a solar installer.

Conclusion

The oil and natural gas industry provides Americans with stable careers with good benefits regardless of their education level or union membership, these two studies find. McGarvey points out the policy implications of these findings, especially as the country’s economy starts to recover, saying:

“We hope these studies provide a cautionary note for lawmakers, policymakers and activists, that oil and gas jobs are high-quality jobs, and as we rebuild the economy and transition, we need a plan to rebuild the middle class with family-sustainable wages, training and growth opportunities, and long-term and short-term benefits like the oil and gas construction sectors provide.”

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