D. Dowd Muska

 

Blue-Collar America: Help Still Wanted

January 28, 2016

America’s oil-and-gas boom has been a boon in innumerable ways, but its greatest value might be the livelihoods it has given to men and women without college degrees. From pump operators to truck drivers to roustabouts, the fracking revolution generated a cornucopia of opportunities for folks who aren’t higher-education material.

And now, those jobs are hard to find.

Employment in oil-and-gas extraction, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), peaked at 201,500. That was in October 2014. The workforce has tumbled by 17,000 since. It’s safe to assume that a rebound isn’t imminent.

Low prices have made work in the hydrocarbon industry, at least in the short term, a bad bet. But that’s no reason for former and once-aspiring fracksters to succumb to college-is-for everyone groupthink. Plenty of good-paying, blue-collar gigs are available, and will be for many decades to come.

In a development that protectionists can’t quite wrap their brains around, manufacturing employment is growing -- up 7.7 percent since its March 2010 bottoming-out. The rebound is remarkable, given the Obama administration’s hyperkinetic ratcheting of energy and environmental regulations. Factories of all kinds are hiring, but one product that was never again to be “made in the U.S.A.” deserves mention. Cheap natural has revived the chemical-manufacturing sector, which has been adding jobs since the start of 2011. (Dow is advertising “many opportunities” in production and maintenance.) And now that the U.S. has finally joined the global market for energy, export-related positions at oil and liquefied natural gas terminals are sure to proliferate.

Employers in warehousing/logistics are concerned about a labor shortage, a problem exacerbated by consumers’ growing preference for online shopping. The trucking subsector is staring down a severe crisis. Last fall, Larry Mertz, operations director at JCI Transportation in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that his firm “could double our fleet tomorrow” if it had enough drivers. Metro Phoenix’s four biggest trucking companies are “each … seeking about 200 drivers,” The Arizona Republic reported in November.

Don’t like sitting all day? Look into construction. Plenty of its employees got burned in the housing bubble, but work is coming back. Last summer, the CEO of the National Association of Home Builders called his industry’s labor shortage “an epidemic.”

Tennessee’s chapter of Associated General Contractors of America found that 90 percent of its members are having difficulties in finding roofers, masons, and the like. The president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors Florida Gulf Coast called a lack of personnel the “biggest challenge facing the entire industry right now.” Workers trained in its construction program, San Antonio’s St. Phillips College boasts, “are hired out there in the workforce immediately, and they are making the money they were promised.”

It hasn’t had the problem “in years,” The Buffalo News marveled, but openings in the region’s building trades are so numerous, retirees are being asked back, and recruitment is underway “from outside the area: Rochester, the Southern Tier, Albany and, in an ironic reversal of years of employment migration, as far away as Arizona and Las Vegas.” A Missoula construction-crew chief told Montana Public Radio: “If you aren’t working right now, it’s your own fault. Everybody who says they don’t have a job -- if you go out and get some training you can pretty much write your own ticket.”

Demand for auto mechanics is strong, and likely to get stronger. Car sales in 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported, “jumped to a record, clearing a peak last reached 15 years ago as cheap gasoline, employment gains and low interest rates spurred Americans to snap up new vehicles.” (So much for Millennials loving walking, bicycles, and government transit.) The mean hourly wage for auto repair and maintenance, as determined by the BLS, is $20.89. And as an instructor at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay put it: “I never have a student say, “Oh, I can’t find a job.’”

Few politicians are willing to admit it, but college isn’t for everyone -- a truth bolstered by higher education’s disturbingly high dropout rate, as well as the sizable share of workers who have, but don’t need, sheepskins.

Surgery grosses you out? Not interested in Proust? Bored by discussions of dark matter? Ignore the economic and educational “experts.” There are promising career options for people who eschew a college degree. (Or two. Or three.) Middle-class wages, decent benefits, and job security are attainable via vocational certifications, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

# # # # #