NABJ highlights need for more minorities in energy sector

theGRIO REPORT - Increasing minority participation in the energy sector, specifically among blacks and Hispanic Americans, was at the forefront of an institute devoted to teaching journalists how to report on the industry...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

HOUSTON—Increasing minority participation in the energy sector, specifically among blacks and Hispanic Americans, was at the forefront of an institute devoted to teaching journalists how to report on the industry.

In addition to learning how to navigate the sector, reporters, entrepreneurs, students and others who attended a one-day institute hosted by the National Association of Black Journalists shared ideas on how to increase minority participation.

The potential for African-American success in the energy sector is huge, according to the American Petroleum Institute. In a recently released report, the organization says by 2020, it projects that 500,000 jobs will be created in the upstream oil and natural gas sector alone.

“Job security ranks number one in driving employment decisions for African-Americans and Latinos,” said Rayola Dougher, senior economist at the American Petroleum Institute. Dougher says, “Between 2010 and 2020, about one third of the jobs in the oil industry would go to Hispanics and African-Americans.” Her company’s report says that because the industry represents longevity, financial stability, produces products that are viewed as necessities, these are key drivers to the sector, “even more so than salary considerations.”

The energy sector provides opportunities to branch off into several different paths, Dougher said, including corporate, construction, drilling, chemical, steel, hospitality and trucking. Carlos Rodriguez of the American Institute for Research noted that because of such high demand, many entry-level job salaries start at $60,000; $70,000; or $80,000, possible for a high school graduate.

As the U.S. economy recovers from the Great Recession, African-Americans still suffer from disproportionately high unemployment rates. In January, while the national unemployment rate was at 7.9 percent, African-Americans experienced a nearly doubled rate at 13.8 percent. Energy industry pros suggest that encouraging blacks to enter the sector—which is rapidly growing—could help bring the number down.

Starting in the Schools

According to Dougher, 1.5 percent of African-Americans in four-year colleges are getting degrees associated with the energy industry.

Industry insiders say that introducing kids to different careers in primary schools and educating communities about the industry in general plays a huge part in making sure African-Americans know about the variety of jobs available in the energy sector.

“Growing up in very rural Pennsylvania, where virtually no people looked like me, having a career in the energy industry never crossed my mind,” said Marc Payne, general manager of new ventures and growth for Africa and Latin America at Chevron.

Rodriguez suggests teachers, parents and communities “Take advantage of non-conventional study opportunities” to alert kids of different careers. According to Dougher, schools should make sure kids have the skillsets, but industries should partner with schools to match those skills with jobs.

“There’s no substitute for ambassadors for the industry,” said Frank Stewart, former president of the American Association of Blacks in Energy and current managing partner of FM Stewart Consulting.

The Demand is High

With the constant discovery of new energy and drilling resources, technology and a national push for the United States to become energy independent by 2030, the demand is high for more workers in the industry. “Shale gas and oil and unconventional resources are a big part of why that’s going to happen,” said Talia Buford, an energy reporter for POLITICO Pro, who moderated a discussion on shale.

A newer energy discovery, shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock formed by consolidated clay or mud. According to the United States Chamber, by 2020, shale energy “could support three million American jobs and $417 billion in economic growth.”

Revitalizing Communities

The energy sector has created an economic revival in Houston. By December 2012, unemployment had risen by almost four percent since August 2008, when it peaked before falling during the Great Recession.

“Oil and gas have transformed the skyline of the city,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who gave a welcome to institute attendees. “Today, oil and gas are about 50 percent of the Houston economy. …Energy still is the lifeblood of Houston.”

Parker said the industry has changed Houston into a multinational, multicultural, multiethnic city. The surge in energy workers is consequently creating the need for more homes, schools, doctors, grocery stores and other essentials that families need to carry on day-to-day life. It’s rejuvenated the city and strengthened economic development.

Possible Cautions

Working in the energy industry, depending on which job one has, could be potentially harmful long-term, said Buford.

She noted that more should be done to educate youngsters on “clean” energy jobs. Depending on the energy source and the job function, working in the energy sector could have lasting health effects on one’s life.

Buford also noted that many jobs in the energy sector are in rural areas, while many African-Americans and other minorities live in cities.

Increasing access to alternative employment options is important to help drive down unemployment and as one institute attendee put it, “to encourage diversity to not only create jobs, but create wealth in minority communities.”

Renita D. Young is a Chicago-based multimedia journalist. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.