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High schoolers are dropping out to take high-wage, blue-collar jobs, says study. And that's a bad thing?

Is the lure of blue-collar jobs actually increasing high school drop-out rates? The answer is yes, according to a new study, "Who Needs a Fracking Education? The Educational Response to Low-Skill-Based Technological Change," by Elizabeth U. Cascia, Department of Economics, Dartmouth College, and Ayushi Narayan. 

Is the lure of blue-collar jobs actually increasing high school drop-out rates? The answer is yes, according to a new study, "Who Needs a Fracking Education? The Educational Response to Low-Skill-Based Technological Change,by Elizabeth U. Cascia, Department of Economics, Dartmouth College, and Ayushi Narayan. 

While there are many different types of blue-collar jobs in manufacturing, mining, oil and natural-gas drilling and more, Cascio’s study has determined that hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is causing high school students to leave school and head for the oil fields. Cascio’s study explores the “educational response to fracking . . . showing that local labor demands from fracking have been biased toward low-skilled labor and males, reducing the return to high school completion among men. We also show that fracking has increased high school dropout rates of male teens, both overall and relative to females.”

The study concludes that if it weren’t for fracking, teenage males would be dropping out of school at a lesser rate, “narrowing by about 11% between 2000 and 2013 instead of remaining unchanged.” Cascio accuses fracking of a “low-skill bias.” In other words, young people with low-skill levels are being lured into the fracking industry, which President Obama, in his State of the Union address in 2012, said could generate 600,00 jobs by 2020 and supply natural gas for almost 100 years. “Industry projections have suggested that 63% of new jobs are to be blue-collar jobs, suitable for those without high education,” quotes Cascio from an IHS Global Inc. report in 2014.

Opportunities in the oil and natural gas (fracking) industry are good, and the pay for low-skilled workers is even better. One can certainly understand the attraction for young people who are probably bored out of their minds in school. I get the feeling (maybe I’m wrong) that Cascio’s real concern isn’t so much that students are dropping out of  high school and getting these high-paying, low-skilled jobs in fracking, but that they are not graduating and going to college. We all know the big push is for everyone to go to college, which leaves manufacturing trying to find ways to attract young people into the trades. (On a related note, PlasticsToday has published an online poll asking its audience if it is having difficulty finding skilled labor. The response, thus far, has been a resounding yes. You can take the poll by going here.)

As an academic, Cascio may have some “sour grapes” that “low-skilled” jobs, which can be found not only in fracking but in many manufacturing and mining industries, pay such high wages! 

From reading some interesting blogs about this topic, Canada shale oil and fracking industries pay better than the U.S., with a lease hand (bottom of the totem pole) making $500/day. According to one oil worker commenting on the Quora blog, “To get a job as a lease hand, all you need to do is show up and ask for a job (I’m not exaggerating).” Minimum age for this job is 18, he added.

In North Dakota where the industry is booming, there are several jobs that do require a college education in engineering or geology. However, there are quite a few jobs that pay six figures with no college education required. A directional driller is the highest-paid occupation without a college degree, but requires three years’ experience. These positions pay about $192,000, according to several studies on this topic. A rig manager makes about $140,000 a year, but it is a job in which a worker can start at the bottom and work his or her way up. 

I have an acquaintance who goes to North Dakota for four to five months during the summer to get out of the Arizona heat. He’s a welder, a badly needed skill in the oil and natural gas fields. During his annual stint in North Dakota, he can pull in about $150,000. He then comes back to Arizona before winter hits and works at a tattoo shop—he’s also an excellent tattoo artist!

I’d venture to say that the pay rates may be equal to or even top a college professor’s salary. And there’s certainly no shame in blue collar work. Cascio’s study was obviously aimed at finding out why low-skilled, high-school students (mostly males) drop out in favor of a job in the oil and natural gas industry, and she worries that these dropouts may be making a mistake in spite of the high wages paid. 

Cascio noted the study has “several important implications. First, it points to another potential negative side effect of fracking aside from the potential environmental consequences. The decision to drop out of school could well be a rational one in the face of increases in the relative wages of dropouts,” she concludes. “Nevertheless, some students could be making mistakes by perhaps putting more weight on the present than they should.” 

Yes, those high wages would look pretty good to an 18 year old. Heck, those wages look pretty good to most of us, probably to Cascio as well! But don’t blame high-paying blue-collar jobs for some students deciding not to finish high school! It wasn’t too long ago that very few people finished high school! My mother’s parents only went as far as eighth grade! But of course they accomplished a whole lot more in those eight years than most kids today accomplish in 16! Their cursive handwriting was beautiful and their spelling and grammar were impeccable!

One downside to fracking is that these jobs may not last decades. As the price of oil and natural gas drops, the monetary incentive to expand drilling and fracking shrinks. That could obviously threaten the jobs of these low-skilled dropouts in Cascio’s study. 

While Cascio’s focus is on fracking and the oil and natural gas industry, perhaps the manufacturing sector also needs to worry about fracking distracting young people from looking at the opportunities that abound in factories. Are plastics processors and moldmakers competing with the oil and natural gas industries in certain regions of the country (upper Midwest and Texas primarily) for workers?

We’re seeing more and more colleges and universities establish plastics programs either as mainstream courses or continuing education and, thus, offer greater opportunities to extend formal education as well as enhance skills. I recently received the fall brochure from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee outlining its upcoming semester, and it’s a really comprehensive program that cuts across a number of materials and processes. Rick Finnie, owner of M.R. Mold & Engineering in Brea, CA, is listed as one of the program’s highly qualified instructors in LSR processing as well as plastic injection molds. 

Ms. Cascio shouldn’t feel too badly about these young people, although I would encourage them to at least finish their high school education. More and more training is available in manufacturing and there are more and more blue-collar jobs available for those with a good work ethic, a particular quality that everyone wants in their employees. 

After all, somebody has to do the drilling, fit and weld the pipes, set up the heavy equipment and get the oil and natural gas out of the ground so that the plastics industry can make polymer materials and turn those polymers into products that make our lives better.

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