As Oil Companies Stay Lean, Workers Move to Renewable Energy
Emma McConville was thrilled when she landed a job as a geologist at Exxon Mobil in 2017. She was assigned to work on one of the company’s most exciting and lucrative projects, a giant oil field off Guyana.
But after oil prices collapsed during the pandemic, she was laid off on a video call at the end of 2020. “I probably blacked out halfway,” Ms. McConville recalled.
Her shock was short-lived. Just four months later, she landed a job with Fervo, a young Houston company that aims to tap geothermal energy under the Earth’s surface. Today she manages the design of two Fervo projects in Nevada and Utah, and earns more than she did at Exxon.
“Covid allowed me to pivot,” she said. “Covid was an impetus for renewables, not just for me but for many of my colleagues.”
Oil and gas companies laid off roughly 160,000 workers in 2020, and they maintained tight budgets and hired cautiously over the last two years. But many renewable businesses expanded rapidly after the early shock of the pandemic faded, snapping up geologists, engineers and other workers from the likes of Exxon and Chevron. Half of Fervo’s 38 employees come from fossil fuel companies, including BP, Hess and Chesapeake Energy.
Executives and workers in energy hubs in Houston, Dallas and other places say steady streams of people are moving from fossil fuel to renewable energy jobs. It’s hard to track such movements in employment statistics, but the overall numbers suggest such career moves are becoming more common. Oil, gas and coal employment has not recovered to its prepandemic levels. But the number of jobs in renewable energy, including solar, wind, geothermal and battery businesses, is rising.
The oil and gas industry had roughly 700,000 workers fewer last year than six years earlier, a decline of over 20 percent. Much of that drop had to do with the slowing of the shale drilling boom and greater automation. By comparison, employment in wind energy grew nearly 20 percent from 2016 to 2021, to more than 113,000 workers.
In more than a dozen interviews, energy workers and executives said they had switched to renewable energy because they felt that the oil and gas industry’s best days were behind it. Others said they were no longer willing to tolerate the extreme ups and downs of oil and gas prices, and the accompanying cycle of rapid hiring followed by crushing layoffs. Many said concerns about climate change, which is primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels, were a factor in their decision.
Jean Paul Beebe negotiated land leases for oil and gas companies before he was laid off early in the pandemic. He now works for Enel North America, a developer of renewable projects that is owned by an Italian energy company. He made a good living when shale drilling was booming, he said, but downturns took a toll on him.
“Riding that wave is a load, mentally,” Mr. Beebe said. “What I know now about renewables, it’s absolutely more stable.”
Many workers, including electricians, offshore construction engineers, information technology specialists and environmental surveyors, say the skills they honed in their oil and gas jobs have translated well to the work they are doing now.
“The basics are the same,” Miguel Febres, a petroleum engineer who has worked in the oil industry for 19 years and is now a planner for wind and solar projects at Enel. “We install foundations, we install turbines, we build roads, we lay cables.”
The Greater Houston Partnership, which champions the interests of businesses in a city that is home to many large oil and gas businesses, has been trying to attract more renewable businesses to the region. A recent study for the group by McKinsey & Company found that 125,000 oil exploration, production and pipeline jobs were lost in the Houston area from 2014 to 2020, a 26 percent reduction. The study warned that many more traditional energy jobs could be lost over the next three decades.
“The work force of the future is going to look very different than it looks today,” said Jane Stricker, senior vice president for energy transition at the Greater Houston organization and a former executive at BP. She noted that dozens of start-ups had opened or relocated to Houston since 2020, some with as many as 50 employees.
“Covid created a ton of opportunity,” she said. “Nobody was making investments in oil and gas because the returns were terrible. A lot of money out there was looking for a new opportunity.”
Executives at renewable companies say being in Houston has helped them attract workers.
“Whenever we post a position like geologist, or drilling engineer or geophysicist,” said Tim Latimer, the chief executive of Fervo, the geothermal company, “you name the oil company and we have a handful of applicants from every single one.”
Oil and gas executives say that there are still many good years of employment left in their industry, and that it continues to serve a vital mission.
Scott Sheffield, chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, a major Texas oil and gas producer, said that “the realization that we have provided energy security for the country and our foreign partners along with a stable and cheap energy source to our citizens” continued to make the industry professionally desirable.
Trent Latshaw, chief executive of Latshaw Drilling, which operates rigs in Oklahoma and Texas, said the demise of oil and gas jobs was greatly exaggerated. “A lot of people have been brainwashed that oil and gas are on the way out,” he said. “The oil industry is so massively outweighs renewables and will for a very long time.”
But even Mr. Latshaw acknowledged that renewables were growing in importance.
Sunnova Energy, a leading solar and battery provider based in Houston, has expanded its staff to 1,400, from 350 in March 2020. Last year it doubled its Houston office space. Its information technology staff alone has grown to around 200 from roughly 70 over the last two years.
“There are a lot of people coming from oil and gas, and they’re saying, ‘Hey, I’m ready for a change,’” said Anthony Cervantes, who interviews job candidates in his role as director of information technology.
Mr. Cervantes was a consultant to oil companies before joining Sunnova two years ago, after he was laid off during the Covid slowdown, he said. He is happier with his work now, he said, because he is worried about climate change: “It’s nice to have a purpose in your job.”
Some lawmakers in Washington and union officials have said the transition to green energy could hurt workers because jobs in oil, gas and coal tend to pay better and are more likely to be unionized than jobs at solar and wind companies. But renewable executives argue that those comparisons are incomplete and don’t take into account the more stable employment their industry provides.
John Berger, Sunnova’s chief executive, said wages at his company had risen rapidly. “The pay rates we pay our service technicians are way, way up over the last 12 to 18 months,” he said. “So the pay gap, if there ever was one, has either closed or is closing.”
Some workers who have left oil and gas companies said they had been frustrated with how slowly their previous employers embraced clean energy.
Sam Johnson, 30, has been interested in renewable energy since high school. After he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a doctorate in mechanical engineering, he got a job at Shell researching how the oil company might build large-scale renewable energy projects and sell electricity.
He said he had initially hoped that oil companies would change how they did business. “Most of the oil companies see that there’s going to be a day when oil and gas demand will be lower and we have to be able to do something after that,” he said.
But he gradually concluded that the industry was committing only a tiny portion of its revenue to clean energy research. A few months after he joined Shell, Covid hit, oil prices plummeted and research funding began to dry up. Working from home, he became more isolated as one colleague after another quit — frequently to work at renewable energy companies.
Most frustrating was the business lens by which Shell executives viewed his projects. “Every project needs to have a really high rate of return,” he said. “But electricity is not as valuable as a commodity as oil or gas.”
A spokesman for Shell, Curtis Smith, said the company “remains committed to investing and delivering energy that is increasingly lower carbon.” He added, “The levers we pull to achieve that will continue to be scrutinized with the goal of growing shareholder value while contributing to a balanced energy transition.”
Over the months, Mr. Johnson’s frustration grew. He saw the writing on the wall when his supervisor left Shell for a start-up, he said.
Soon after, that manager offered Mr. Johnson has a job as a senior service architect for GreenStruxure, which advises businesses on eliminating their greenhouse gas emissions. He is now developing models to show how companies can save money by installing solar panels and batteries.
Mr. Johnson still appreciates his time at Shell, saying he got a “ton of experience” and liked the people he met there. “I would probably be willing to go back to Shell,” he said, “but I would have to be convinced I could make an impact.”