Keeping the lights on

In an election year, politicians usually tell you what you want to hear. They say your hometown will see lots of new jobs. This seems to be especially true if you live near a coal mine. Unfortunately, politicians can’t promise you good jobs, unless you happen to be a huge campaign donor, and they send you to be an ambassador somewhere nice. You control your own career destiny, not politicians. The best strategy energy workers have is to learn a trade and be willing to adapt to the market.  

During a 2012 presidential debate, moderator Candy Crowley asked the candidates how they would bring electronics manufacturing back to the U.S. President Barack Obama answered, “There are some jobs that are not going to come back. Because they are low-wage, low-skill jobs. I want high-wage, high-skill jobs. That’s why we have to emphasize manufacturing. That’s why we have to invest in advanced manufacturing. That’s why we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got the best science and research in the world.”

Whether you like President Obama or not, I remember being struck by the honesty of that statement. He publicaly acknowledged that it is unrealistic for Americans to expect specific outsourced jobs to return. It isn’t because U.S. citizens are lazy or not smart enough to figure out the manufacturing. It is because we have been priced out of the market. If you made an entire iPhone in Iowa with parts and labor from neighboring states, it would cost more than you would be willing to pay for a phone.  

The electronics manufacturing market is similar to the energy sector. If natural gas stays cheap, no politician can guarantee a specific coal mining job. If we start to export liquid natural gas to other countries in a big way, we can’t guarantee those prices will stay low either.          
We could improve the technology for fossil fuel extraction and drop the cost that way. If the coal industry in West Virginia could build a drastically more efficient way to turn coal into electricity, they could see a major resurgence. If not, coal may only be a viable option when there are major supply issues with other energies.  

In June of 2008, the Dow Jones U.S. Coal Index was over $700/share. After the Great Recession, it bounced back to the $500/shareneighborhood. As of June 2016, the same index was under $40/share. Coal still makes up a huge part of our electricity production, but mining it in the U.S. isn’t on a good trajectory right now, and there aren’t many policies that could change that.  

Capitalism works best when the government doesn’t bring back jobs. If the government would have heavily subsidized the the wooden wagon wheel industry 100 years ago, would that have stopped the transportation jobs from going to automotive assembly lines? While it would be helpful for West Virginia and other coal states to have a presidential guarantee that all miners would get keep their jobs, it would have to be subsidized by something else. 

Coal power plants are being converted to natural gas power in some places. They probably won’t be converted back to coal power, unless there is a major disruption in the natural gas supply. Mining, hauling, and burning coal rocks requires a lot of processes. Other technologies, specifically renewables, are cutting out a lot of the transportation steps, while adding local installer work. You don’t have to dig up or haul sunlight or wind.  

There will always be energy jobs in the USA. These jobs may require a different set of skills than the traditional energy worker has. We could retrain fossil fuel energy workers in renewable fields. Renewable energy jobs are harder to outsource, because even if an inexpensive solar panel shows up from an overseas manufacturer, a local will have to physically install it on a roof.  

The renewable jobs are growing leaps and bounds.  Cleantechnica.com reports, “…the Energy Department notes that US solar jobs have increased 123 percent since 2010, hitting 209,000 by the end of last year. That’s the third year in a row for a growth rate of 20 percent or more, and the agency sees no end in sight.”

The USA has a program in place to help build a renewable energy workforce and the installers are well qualified for the job. “Solar Ready Vets” are military personnel who are trained to sell, install, or inspect PV panels. An energy.gov article reads, “There are 16,835 U.S. veterans working at solar establishments across the United States, exceeding the percentage of veterans in the broader U.S. workforce. As the more than 190,000 veterans who will be leaving the U.S. military each year for the next several years transition to civilian life, Solar Ready Vets provides a way for veterans to continue serving our country by helping to build a clean energy economy.”  

I love the idea of having a solar array installed with military level precision. Many of the solar systems of the 1970s lacked experienced installers. A lot of those arrays failed early and gave the industry a bit of a black eye.  

 
When I was in college, my dad and I went down to an apartment complex to take about 50 solar thermal panels off roofs. They were going to remodel the buildings and needed the panels out of the way. We found out that most of the systems had been disconnected for over 10 years. They didn’t work well for one reason or another and were abandoned. For this particular area, solar became a project that they had to pay to get rid of. Hopefully, our solar vets can keep this from being the trend again as solar gains in popularity.

My point is that people who are good with their hands and are willing to adapt to changing industries will always have opportunities, especially in the plumbing and heating industry. I know of no product that can safely heat your house without the need of some professional help. Even if you could two-day ship some magical box that could heat your house and a homeowner could install it, I’d bet they would break every once and a while. Of all the things people are willing to wait for, a warm house and a hot shower aren’t high on the list.  

You can’t outsource the trades. Take pride in your work and strive to be good at it. In the event that some external force changes the way you do business, be confident in yourself to adapt to the next important thing.

Sources     

Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah. He is the REHAU Construction Academy Manager in Leesburg, Virginia. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 16 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and the Radiant Professional Alliance (RPA) Education Committee chairman. He can be reached by email at max.rohr@mac.com and on Twitter at @maxjrohr.

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