In a week that saw a major, positive breakthrough in the country’s offshore drilling policy, the stories of energy jobs moving overseas just keep coming. Recently we cited the example of a New England solar panel maker that decided to move manufacturing operations to China when it realized it could not compete from the U.S. with products made in China.
And earlier this week, PBS NewsHour ran a distressing story about the major Silicon Valley company, Applied Materials, and its decision to move its solar operations to China, where it says the manufacturing incentives are better and the solar expertise far superior to what can be found in the U.S.
These stories, unfortunately, are not hard to find. These days, examples of core American businesses and jobs moving overseas just keep piling up. What do these stories have to do with offshore drilling? They underscore the challenge of keeping core American industries in America, and they show that when an industry is long neglected it may be difficult if not impossible to catch up.
In the case of Applied Materials, executives say they needed to move solar operations abroad largely because they could not find the scientific expertise here at home: A company executive tells PBS that decisions made two decades ago to drop funding for solar research means that the United States now has no experts in solar cell technology.
“Solar cells have been out of the curriculum for 20 years,” he explained. “If you are looking for an experienced person in solar you are not going to find them in the U.S. It’s a problem we’ve got to solve, or the general economy is not going to grow.”
Industry, after all, is a living breathing thing that needs to be nourished and nurtured. Financial incentives are critical, but it is also critical to engage the industry, continuously update it and keep it competitive. The longer a plant sits idle, the less likely it is to resume operations. It’s sort of like the saying, use it or lose it.
By committing to new offshore drilling projects, President Obama is not just ensuring more domestically produced oil, he is also helping keep the domestic oil industry and its workers current and competitive. And that is certain to pay dividends in the coming years.