Unemployed Oil Workers Find New Home in Solar Industry

Eighty thousand workers have been laid off across the country as the price of oil has plummeted. In Texas, some out-of-work rig hands, pipe fitters and engineers are finding employment in solar energy.

David Webster has been managing the Mission Solar warehouse in San Antonio since February. Before finding work in the solar sector, Webster spent 10 years shipping oil out of rigs all over the world. Now, he makes sure that the solar panels are packaged and distributed to customers across the U.S.

Transitioning to solar energy was an adjustment.

“Learning about the different types of [panels], learning how the whole process works, that was a learning curve,” Webster said. “The warehouse portion and the management people, not so much.”

Something else that’s different about his new job — the money. “Over a year’s period of time, it’s about half,” Webster said.

Mariela Cruz, a hiring manager at OCI Power, said that a 50 percent pay cut is pretty typical for people transitioning from oil and gas to solar energy.

“Not to say that we don’t pay well or anything like that, but definitely we know that there is a pay differential for those employees,” Cruz said.

An entry level job in solar pays about $50,000 a year. At the peak of the oil boom, rig hands could be making six figures. But warehouse manager David Webster said it was a hard life. Spending 28 days on the rig and 28 days off took a toll on him. The recent uncertainty in the oil market convinced him to take a pay cut.

“The stress of not knowing if you were going to get laid off, that was worse,” Webster said. “I don’t have any stress here.”

The recent downturn in the oil market has made solar energy jobs more attractive. When Mariela Cruz posts an opening for a solar technician, for example, she gets about 100 candidates, of which 25 percent come from oil and gas. Her challenge is to weed out those who will leave once oil prices go up again.

“You can generally tell that they’re trying to make a different transition, that they maybe are tired of the ups and the downs,” Cruz said. But she says some people are less genuine.  “There are some that will actually candidly tell you, well, I’m only looking for something until the market changes, and you’re like okay, thank you.”

The Solar Foundation says Texas will add 900 solar jobs this year. That’s about one percent of the people who recently got pink slips in oil and gas. John Tintera is with the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. He says there’s no way this new industry can absorb all of those displaced workers.

“We’re simply not seeing solar having that level of employment,” Tintera said. “If solar continues to grow then I think at least a 20 percent coverage would be something that would not surprise me if I saw that figure in the future.”

But for now, hiring manager Mariela Cruz says getting a job in solar energy is more competitive than ever. She has one bit of advice for oil and gas workers wanting to make the transition: don’t pretend to be a tree hugger and all about renewable energy after a whole career on oilfields.

“After you’ve done [oil and gas] for 20 years it’s kind of hard to say,” Cruz said. “Can I really take that with a grain of salt or not?”

Cruz hopes that the people she hired this year will stay on board, even when oil prices go back up.

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Stem Cell Therapy For Pets

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Scientists discovered how to extract stem cells from human embryos in the early 2000s. Stem cell research got many people excited but there was a lot of controversy and suspicion surrounding this breakthrough. We haven’t heard much about stem cell research since then, but there are some medical professionals are using the technology: veterinarians.

More than 12,000 animals have been treated with stem cell therapy in the U.S. since 2004. The trend started with racehorses but is now available to domestic animals.

The industry is worth $20 million a year – that’s small compared to the $2 billion dollars Americans spent on pharmaceutical drugs for their pets in 2014. But the industry is expanding fast. There are three companies offering stem cell therapy for pets. A new facility opened in New York in August.

Tony Yuan owns a company called Mobile Stem Care in San Antonio. He says business is good because a lot of people are willing to spend serious money on their pets.

Roger Burton is one of his customers. A long-time hunter, Burton noticed that his Lewellin Setter, Reece, was limping out on the fields. He had never really thought about stem cell therapy for animals, but his doctor convinced him that the risks were minimal.

Burton was impressed with the results of the treatment. “Since the next day I have not seen her struggle at all, this is one happy dog,” Burton says. “She was on two forms of pain reliever, we just took her off of it and all I saw was progress.”

Burton paid upwards of a thousand dollars for the treatment. “I haven’t run across a situation yet where I haven’t done a procedure because of cost,” Burton says. HIs veterinarian, doctor Rachel Smith says she’s never seen patients so willing to spend money on their pets – just think of memory foam dog bed and pet health insurance.

Tony Yuan says that sentiment translates into medical procedures, so the margins for animal stem cell therapy are good. He says it would take him about $20 to bring stem cell therapy to humans.

Doug Frantz teaches bio-medical engineering at the University of Texas San Antonio. He says it will probably be another 10 years before humans can be treated with this type of therapy – and that’s a good thing.

“There’s a lot of regulations when you’re making that jump from veterinary medicine to medicine for humans,” Frantz says, “You really don’t have to have that regulation for animals because the FDA is not really interested in regulating those to that level.”

For the FDA to approve a drug or medical procedure for humans, it has to be better than the existing gold standard. For animals, the procedure has to just be proven safe. Scientists around the world are running hundreds of clinical trials proving the effectiveness of stem cell therapy in humans – and that is going to take a while.

That doesn’t stop people like Roger Burton from daydreaming about getting the same procedure as his dog. “I have a torn meniscus in one of my knees and I would love to have it done today,” Burton says.

But that’s not going to happen anytime soon without FDA approval.