Follow Us

Stigma of 'dirty fossil fuels' drives young people away from lucrative careers in oil and gas work

"Dirty Jobs" host Mike Rowe said a message came down over the decades to young people that a four-year degree was the path to success and trades were the dead-end career choice.

Published: January 22, 2024 11:00pm

Petroleum engineering is the highest paying bachelor’s degree in the United States, according to a report by Payscale, but despite an average annual salary of $97,500, oil companies struggle to fill positions.

The industry faces a number of challenges. Employees often face cyclical layoffs whenever commodity prices collapse, and that makes the jobs appear unstable. Young people today are also concerned about working in an industry they’re taught is destroying the planet.

Some of the respondents on the latest “Dallas Fed Energy Survey” remarked on the labor shortages in the industry. “Labor is hard to find. Dirty-fossil-fuels stigma drives younger talent away,” one respondent said.

Shop class

Dirty Jobs” celebrity, producer, author, podcaster and skilled-trades advocate Mike Rowe told Just The News that the stigma is a problem across industries. “You've got stigmas, stereotypes, myths and misperceptions that have really coalesced, in my view, over the last couple of decades in a way that coincides, ironically — or maybe not ironically, and maybe just practically — with the removal of shop class from high schools,” Rowe said.

He said a message came down over the decades to young people that a four-year degree was the path to success and trades were the dead-end career choice. “That message was pervasive and powerful. It came from guidance counselors. It came from elected officials. It came from Hollywood. It came from Madison Avenue. It came from well-intended parents who just wanted their kids to have the best possible shot,” he said.

The result, Rowe added, was a student debt crisis and nearly 9 million open positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The foundation Rowe runs, the Mike Rowe Works Foundation, is trying to change the perception that these careers, which includes those in the energy sector, aren’t viable, long-term paths to success. The Mike Rowe Works Foundation has awarded $8 million in scholarships, with another million in a few months to help people get trained in everything from automotive technology to welding.

Challenging narratives

Besides the overall negative view of trades, the oil and gas industry has to contend with the perception that petroleum is on the whole harmful to people and the planet.

Molly Determan, president of the Energy Workforce & Technology Council, told Just The News that it’s something oil companies are looking to address. “There is a challenge for the oil and gas industry that we face collectively due to the false narrative about our industry, and we’re having to work against a message that just isn’t true,” Determan said.

Besides extensive media coverage that is often filled with exaggerations of the impacts of climate change, the U.S. education system also drills in these messages throughout kids’ schooling. “In elementary school, through high school, you'll probably see, at least in public schools, one unit per year that's dealing with climate change,” Linnea Lueken, researcher for the Heartland Institute, told Just The News.

Lueken graduated from the University of Wyoming with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering in 2017. Prior to working for The Heartland Institute, she worked on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Determan said that recruitment tactics that worked with older generations don't work well with younger workers. It used to be, she said, just a matter of telling people what the job is, and they’ll come in and accept it or not. “I think that that attitude doesn't work anymore,” she said.

Determan also said that oil companies have had a tendency to avoid confronting negative messages about the industry. However, letting anti-fossil fuel messages go unchallenged had a demoralizing effect on the workforce. “Our workforce doesn't always know the moral imperative behind our industry. They might feel like they have to apologize for working in the oil and gas industry. And so we have to educate our own workforce so that they can be ambassadors,” she said.

Companies like Liberty Energy are doing TED talks to counter the message that the industry that its products cause a net harm to society. The company’s ESG report, called “Bettering Human Lives,” proposes its readers consider not just the negative impacts of the industry, but the impacts on the world of the absence of the industry, which includes widespread energy poverty.

Determan noted that some companies are also trying to reach young people with this message on their social media platforms, such as Tik Tok.

Fundamentally grateful

Besides changing perceptions about the industry, recruiters are also seeking other ways to appeal to what younger generations look for in their jobs. Younger people tend to value flexible schedules, and Determan said some companies are looking for ways to offer that where possible. “Some of our companies are trying it out, so far that they have seen some success from that,” she said.

Lueken said that oil companies are undermining their own recruitment efforts with the educational requirements for even entry level positions. She said the smaller producers are more flexible, but majors tend to require at least a college degree. She said this makes it hard for someone to gain some experience in the industry and earn some money to help pay for their college education.

“There was at one point you could go out and be a roughneck right out of high school, make a ton of money, and then basically put yourself to college on that,” Lueken said. That also helped younger workers get a bit of experience in the oil field, she said, so they could decide if it’s the right career for them.

Oil companies and stakeholders are also investing in educational opportunities so they can create their own workforce. Harold Hamm, billionaire pioneer of U.S. shale and founder of Continental Resources, is donating millions of dollars to recruit and train a new generation of oil workers.

“We are going to be using oil for the next 50 years and clean-burning natural gas probably for the next 100 or 150 years,” Hamm told the Financial Times, and so the industry needs to get the “next generation of game changers involved.”

Mike Rowe said that there needs to be a greater gratitude for the comforts of modern civilization, but that’s difficult when people are fundamentally ignorant of how those comforts are created.

“If we're not fundamentally grateful for the miracle that happens when we flick the switch ... if we don't understand the miracle of modern plumbing, then we're not going to have a great deal of respect for the workers who are on the front lines of those vocations,” Rowe said.

Just the News Spotlight