On a new education

As the world tries to move into a new system of energy supplies, driven by the need to tackle Climate Change and avoid the verifiably unwanted consequences of remaining within the current status quo, one issue of interest is what will happen to the millions of people that are employed in the current fossil-fuel energy sectors. The usual reply to this question is that the “new economy” that will spring from the switch to renewable energies will provide with plenty of new jobs, many of which will be open to the people doing the transition. Some minor, not-at-all inconvenient changes will have to be done by those trying to fill those new jobs, but the new economy will provide employment for all of those former Oil & Gas and Coal workers. It will be of no disturbance to these professionals.

That is a dubious claim.

As a member of the first group (O&G) I have tried, for over 6 years now, to move into renewable energies, a process in which I have sent several applications to the related areas of expertise that I hold, but within renewable companies. Yet, nobody has ever even replied with an inquiry as to what my goals are and what credentials I can bring to a possible new employer. The reasons are simple: the believe that a person coming from one industry can seamlessly do the move is unfounded on reality, and companies nowadays do not invest in training of personnel if such training is from the ground up. Maybe a minor course here, and an introductory lesson there, but full on-the-job training is no longer provided by companies. If so, it starts at the most introductory level of employment, paid indirectly by the trainee by the meager salary that such positions command. Companies and industries expect their incoming personnel to start providing an added value from day 1; stockholders otherwise frown.

An example of how difficult such a switch can be was offered to me as I started TAT2.0. While I am no stranger to computer programming (I hold a Masters degree in Computer Sciences) and the setting up of the PHP-based skeleton was not terribly troublesome, as soon as I started looking a little deeper into what was needed for such an enterprise I got a vision of where the industry stands today. In the past, all one person needed to set up a website was a basic frame software (MS Frontpage, for example) and then learn one or two other such packages (DreamWeaver, another example). But now the situation has changed; web integration has become a continent of resources that need to be properly understood if anything of worth is to be done. In the past all one needed was certain knowledge of the HTML language, but that is no longer viable. The page where this is published is set up on the foundation of the following languages: HTML5 (the inevitable upgrade), PHP v7.4 (version 8 is already out), CSS for fonts and colors, MYSQL language for logical queries, and Javascript and JQuery, two similar but not-equal (or interchangeable) script languages. This DOES NOT provide any support yet for a website in which, for example, one would like to enable sales. How simple are these languages? The official PHP site (where the platform informs of its progress) has a section for its “manual”, of which there are at least 25 links to read, BEFORE you get to the advanced section. As a guess, one would say that PHP has at least 200 commands and functions, all of which are needed if one wants to make a fully functional site. Last, as a further proof of the degree of sophistication needed to handle software nowadays, if one wanted to perform more technical matters one would be encouraged to develop a taste for PERL (which is by now becoming “obsolete”, less than 20 years after its birth) or Python.

The complexity of this landscape of programming languages is such that the developing of a “post parser” (don’t ask), a simple, one function script that runs in 255 lines of code, took me roughly 4 months of study, a 700 pages book to read, and two to three weeks of actual programming. Yes, perhaps somebody with better understanding of these languages could have done it in one afternoon but that is precisely the point: for the people with experience in these areas, such tasks may be easy and routine. But for those without an education or a grasp of what needs to be done, these new skills are not trivial, and getting an education on them is not an overnight task, some pastime that can be done in one weekend before you submit your new, improved CV to a potential employer. It takes considerable time and effort. Right now I would assess that, after setting up an entire website and developing the mentioned script, my skills level is precisely at that: 4 months of training, which would be equivalent to 2 months of college education, had I been guided by professors and colleagues.

The comedian/social critic Bill Maher once ran a brief point that progress was like that and he gave one example from the early 20th century: as cities began being lit by electricity, the thousands of jobs for gas-light igniters (the people that would lit-up the gas lights of the streets) were lost, and those people moved to electrical-bulbs installers. They went from one low-tech job (using a lighter) to another low-tech job (screwing and unscrewing light bulbs). But the point that Maher, and all politicians that want to sell the new technology as a panacea for jobs, miss is simple: the new technologies are anything but low tech. Installing a solar panel is NOT a one afternoon affair and can only be accomplished after considerable training. Servicing wind mills and other energy producing facilities is, currently, a very HIGH-TECH endeavor, something for which considerable training is needed. The fact that the jobs will be there does not mean that they will be taken over by the people that currently work in O&G, Coal or other industries that are expected to be reduced, considerably, if we are to switch to renewable energies only (an impossible switch, but a subject for some other musing).

Make a thought experiment, or witness the same effect as a consequence of the current pandemic. Imagine that a second, world-wide health phenomenon happens: some mysterious disease starts affecting the dentition of all people. However, this disease is treatable by dentists. This would, of course, create a demand for dental technicians. But the fact that there is a demand does not mean that the jobs would be immediately open to everybody; you would need considerable training and expertise to do dental work; it is called “dentistry” and it is a full fledge career. We have seen it with the Covid pandemic, which has stretched the limits of all medical services in the world because people simply cannot walk into a hospital and, as well intentioned as they could be, start treating the sick. It takes skills, and these are not the same as changing lightbulbs in 1901. New openings or new demand for workers never means ALL AND ANY workers.

To believe that an entire economy of O&G/Coal workers can switch to the new economy overnight is folly; it would take considerable re-training for all these people to move to the new positions that will be open, at stages in their lives in which they need an income to support families, and steady jobs to do so. Factor in the reality that proper, CERTIFIED education is costly and the magnitude of the issue is easy to grasp. The believe that the new economies will provide for all is simply a fairy-tale that is being told because, what can’t be denied, the issue of Climate Change is real and it is pressing. But nobody is open to tell millions of people, and even entire countries, that if this switch to renewables does take place and is absolute at planetary levels, tens of millions of people will be discarded from the labor market, worldwide. 20, 30 years of experience in one area will be swept aside, as needed as a person with a lighter was needed once electricity took over as the form of illumination that characterized the 20th century. Some people will be able to make the switch; perhaps the younger ones, still used to entry level salaries and with expectations not completely defined, can return to some sort of training and become part of the new economy, able to spend a few years learning the new craft at discount salaries for the large companies. But many will not find a niche in the new markets; many simply will not have the time, resources or even skills to make such radical changes. High levels of specialization mean that your niche is small, by definition. If 15 years ago you decided that your future was to repair Blackberry phones because everybody had one, your bet must have exploded terribly in your face.

Getting an education is not a brief thing; you do not read “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and become a philosopher in one week. We have to be honest with people: we will be discarded and if you want to survive, not only you have to be ready to compete with the same competition as before, now you have to face the young ones too. No better metaphor for being a dinosaur comes to my mind.