‘Desperate’ for workers, will clean energy embrace fossil fuel professionals?

This piece begins less like an article and more as an open conversation. So, of course, that conversation began on the platform known for facilitating civil discourse on nuanced topics: Twitter.

Jigar Shah, the director of the Loan Programs Office of the U.S. Dept. of Energy, and a longtime renewable energy entrepreneur, launched a discussion earlier this month about the acceptance of fossil fuel industry professionals in the advanced energy economy. 

“Discrimination against people that are currently working in the #fossilfuel industry trying to transition to the #cleanenergy industry makes no sense to me,” Shah wrote on Twitter. “Judge folks on their skills not what industry they come from.”

Whether these stories are isolated or pervasive is unclear. But advocates of reducing carbon emissions say the advanced energy economy’s rapid growth requires the embrace of qualified individuals from all backgrounds — including fossil fuels — to reach ambitious climate goals.

Michael Webber, Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote that clean energy recruiters are reaching out about a shortage of qualified applicants– adding that many O&G professionals have the experience those companies seek.

“I don’t know where the hold up is, but we have a labor market on one side desperate for people and we have the O&G industry laying off people, or not growing, you think this could solve itself but somehow there’s a gap there,” Webber told Renewable Energy World in an interview.

Webber thinks bias exists more on the side of career O&G workers, rather than renewable energy companies, based on his conversations. Traditionally higher paying jobs and a long-running rivalry within the energy industry may dissuade O&G employees from making the switch.

“If you grow up in oil and gas thinking renewables is the bad guy, it might be a hard leap to join the bad guy,” he said.

Watch Renewable Energy World’s full interview with Michael Webber of the U.T. Energy Institute:

Like many industries, the advanced energy economy in the U.S. was hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The industry lost nearly 20% of its workforce midway through 2020, but rebounded faster than the overall labor market by year end, according to a report by E2. And there may be more room to run.

E2 Clean Jobs America 2021 report

In Texas, home to legacy O&G corporations, the Texas Advaned Energy Business Alliance (TAEBA) found that 33% of advanced energy employers say it’s “very difficult” to find qualified applicants for open positions.

Texas Advanced Energy Business Alliance

Suzanne Bertin, managing director of the TAEBA, doesn’t believe that challenge is tied to any discrimination against O&G professionals, though. She said Texas communities, even ones in historically O&G-dominated areas of the state, have embraced the transition to advanced energy jobs.

While higher education institutions in the state offer programs to help O&G workers transition to the advanced energy economy, Bertin believes the federal government could play a bigger role.

Bridging the gap

Katie Mehnert started Pink Petro to encourage and facilitate diversity and inclusion within O&G. The organization evolved to become ALLY Energy, as the energy transition took shape.

Named an equity ambassador to the U.S. Dept. of Energy in 2020, Mehnert resents the use of words like “clean” or “dirty” to describe segments of the energy sector because of the fault lines those words create — she’s well-aware of the impact that humans, and O&G, have had on climate change.

Mehnert said she often hears stories about bias against O&G professionals.

“We have to look at the talent we have available,” Mehnert told Renewable Energy World. “We don’t have enough talent available — we’ve known this for years. All parties agree. So, for renewable companies, if it’s happening, and I hear that it’s happening, to say oil and gas talent doesn’t matter, that’s ludicrous.”

“We should absolutely not discriminate and leave anybody behind in the energy transition.”

Share your experiences about energy’s labor market transition with Renewable Energy World Content Director John Engel. Email john.engel@clarionevents.com.