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Skilled Trades Jobs in Energy: Critical Roles with Pay to Match

Man wearing hardhat on a worksite

Are you a machinist, a millwright, a welder, a pipe fitter or an electrician? If so, there are lots of industries you can work in. You could make your living in, say, automotive manufacturing, power generation or aerospace.

So why choose energy over the other options? Two words: career longevity.

“At the end of the day, one of the most appealing things about working in power generation is that no one in the United States can go without power. The work is never going to go away,” says Robert McKimm, an Aerotek account executive in Jacksonville, Florida.

We spoke with Robert McKimm and Robert Kellow, an account recruiting manager who’s also based in Jacksonville. They’ve spent years recruiting and placing workers in the specialty trades — the skilled technical workers who repair and maintain power plants, oil and gas production centers, and industrial facilities. Here’s what they had to say:

Which machines do specialty trades workers maintain and repair?

“In the energy sector, they do repairs on turbines, boilers and compressors,” Robert McKimm said. “They repair pumps and all the piping inside power plants and oil and gas storage facilities. When it comes to mechanical components, they make repairs on motors, gearboxes, burners, condensers and bucket elevators.”

“We do a lot of work in the valve repair services industry, too… Valve technicians do the repairs on either control valves, manually operated valves or safety relief valves,” McKimm said. “It’s basically a whole industry that revolves around making sure you’re either moving or stopping product from going through a pipe.”

Which specialty trades jobs are in demand?

McKimm said he sees strong demand for skilled workers to perform maintenance and repairs and technology upgrades during planned shutdowns of power plants and industrial facilities. This work is performed under tight deadlines and is often highly technical.

“Every power plant has scheduled outages. Every 18 months, they have to bring down certain components inside the facility,” McKimm said. “When they do it, they’re closed down for 10 days. They’ve got these 10 days to get all their repairs done, and those repairs keep getting more and more complex.”

The energy industry requires a range of skill sets.

“Millwrights are a big need right now. There are more jobs than candidates,” Robert Kellow said. “Machinists are in high demand as well.” These are the folks making the parts the plant needs for its machinery on the spot during shutdown.

Should skilled tradespeople consider working in contract positions?

“Many tradespeople like the higher pay and flexibility contract positions offer,” Robert McKimm said.

Robert Kellow added, “You can dictate what assignments you work. A lot of machinists I know, they’ll work six months out of the year and take the other six months off, and they’ll still make close to 100 grand a year.”

Pulling that kind of pay while working only half the year often involves 80- and 90-hour weeks. People who work during planned outages at power plants tend to put in long hours. However, many contract positions are also available that offer 40-hour work weeks.

Variety in your assignments can help secure your long-tern career in a rapidly evolving and volatile sector, as workers in new environments tend to pick up new skills.

How can skilled workers make the transition into the energy industry?

Certifications are helpful. You can get certified in various professions through NCCER, the National Center for Construction Education & Research.

“Throughout the United States,” Robert McKimm said, “you have the capability to make more pay because you’re an NCCER-certified machinist, electrician, rigger or millwright.”

Sometimes transitioning to a new industry means taking a short-term pay cut in exchange for a potential long-term pay hike.

“What a lot of folks don’t want to hear is that sometimes you have to take a little bit of a pay cut from what you’d been making in other areas — because you don't have the skill set yet to be able to walk in and do these jobs,” Robert McKimm said.

“People sometimes take a $2- or $3-an-hour pay cut in order to make that move. But once you get those skills, you’re irreplaceable,” he said. “Ultimately, when you get experience in the energy industry, your pay is far greater than what it would have been in the automotive or aviation industries.”

What about solar?

“The solar industry offers a chance for entry-level people to get into the electrical or mechanical field, because its components are extremely basic,” McKimm said.

Kellow added that he sees the renewable energy industry bringing jobs to small towns. “It’s providing opportunities in rural places where there may not be much there for employment.”

Are you a thinking about getting into the energy industry? Spend some time exploring our jobs in a range of specialty trades.