This post is part of a series exploring the workers I’ve met who are on the front lines of the fracing boom in Pennsylvania. You can find links to the other articles on the overview page.
If I had to guess someone in the class was going to be from Texas, I would have guessed it would be James. He walked into the class wearing cowboy boots and a large belt buckle touting the wonders of Jack Daniels. He drove a 1985 Ford pickup that he unashamedly touted as being impermeable to the impending rain because of its complete lack of electronics.
To James, this job as a welder’s assistant (a job he described as “doing whatever the welder wants me to do.”) was a fantastic opportunity for the next 6 months. He was notified of his need to attend the class just the day prior when “a Mexican” failed to show up for work. But it was also great pay for his level of education.
At 19, James was the youngest person there. He had joined the Marine Reserve, following in the path of his older brother, and needed to find a job for when he wasn’t actively deployed. With just a high school degree, his job paid $14/h, which meant his job paid more in 2 weeks than his girlfriend’s did all summer. This sort of opportunity reminds me of the stories people tell of being able to find a decent job with just a high school education back in the 60s before the onset of globalization. Plus, with appropriate additional training, he could be highly recruited for other jobs in the region.
When I compare James’ experience with that of Danny’s, it reminds me of the disruptive innovation popularized by Clayton Christensen, but applied to labor. Have we entered a world in which college represents an over education of the labor force when what we really need are skilled trades? How much longer can we afford for the nation’s youth to take on significant debt without the opportunity to pay it back?
What each of the stories in this series represent are people trying to make it as best they can. It’s easy to think of the shale gas revolution in environmental terms, primarily because most of the news stories focus on that, but it also affects many other aspects of our society. By providing jobs to people with little training, others like James and Jason can earn a living; but the people working on these well sites also represent people like Danny, who have been let down by the larger American economy and fall back on the decent salary despite their training in other areas…much in the same way that a barista at Starbucks or waiter at your local restaurant may have a college degree. The environmental impacts also need to be accounted for, absolutely, and the environment and the economy are not mutually exclusive; but the environment must be balanced with the many other positive benefits to society. What other industry shows so much promise and opportunity for such a large swath of the american public?