By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A recent study links higher rates of high school dropouts to hydraulic fracturing, but critics say North Dakota schools’ education priorities are more to blame.
“Our estimates imply that, absent fracking, the male-female gap in high school dropout rates among 17- to 18-year-olds would have narrowed by about 11% between 2000 and 2013 instead of remaining unchanged,” the National Bureau of Economic Research said in its study released earlier the month.
According to the research, for every 0.1 percentage point increase in the employment rate for males in the oil industry the dropout rate among male teenagers went up 0.3 to 0.35 percentage points.
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North Dakota is now the second largest producer of crude oil among U.S. states and has enjoyed strong economic and population growth as a result. With that growth has come some issues like increased crime and a higher cost of living, but some experts say blaming energy development for high school dropouts is too simplistic.
Kent Ellis, a workforce development expert who works on career awareness for groups like the North Dakota Petroleum Council and the Lignite Energy Council, says it’s unfair to link energy development to dropouts.
He points out that any economic opportunity is likely to increase dropouts among kids not engaged in high school.
“I don’t think it’s just a boom in energy. A manufacturing boom would have had the same result. Laying it at the feet of the energy industry is really irresponsible,” Ellis told Watchdog. “I think any industry would have had the same result.”
“Some people don’t like the idea of energy development in the state so they’re going to find anything to draw a linkage,” he continued.
David Flynn, chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of North Dakota College of Business & Public Administration, said the NBER research relies on assumptions that aren’t necessarily true about North Dakota.
“You have to be careful and understand that North Dakota had some very interesting distinctions compared to other areas with fracking,” he said. “We did not have enough labor. We needed a lot of labor from outside the area. One of the things in this paper is that they’re largely relying on assumptions based on analysis in other places in the countries where they weren’t so reliant on outside labor.”
He also said tying increased dropout rates to fracking specifically doesn’t make a lot of sense. “Any economic opportunity that presents in this particular fashion it’s an opportunity for relatively low skill labor,” he said.
Schools ‘repelling’ students
According to Ellis, one thing the NBER study may tell us is schools aren’t doing a good job of giving students what they need.
“They would have been lured into the construction trades, into agriculture, into something. They weren’t lured into that business. It’s almost like they were repelled by the education industry,” he said. “What the energy industry did is provide them with an outlet for a high-paying career.”
Ellis said school curriculum focuses too much on “a good education” and not enough on career skills.
“We’ve had this overwhelming focus on getting out of school and getting back into school without any real focus on what these young kids really want to do,” Ellis said.
Ellis pointed to data from the U.S. Census Bureau to make his point. According to data from 2014, in Grand Forks County — home to the University of North Dakota — 92.5 percent of residents have a high school degree, 32.6 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and median household income was $46,745.
He contrasted those numbers with data from Oliver County, home to both coal and oil energy development. There 87.5 percent of citizens have a high school degree, 16.4 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, but the median household income $71,250, or 52 percent higher than in Grand Forks County.
“A good education might be a PhD in philosophy, and then you’ll understand why you don’t have a job,” he said. “A good education and skills for the workforce are not synonymous.”
Flynn pointed out the relationship between the workforce and technological change in recent years is a sharp departure from historical norms.
“It’s interesting that it goes against the grain of much of the 20th and early 21st century where technological change allowed for higher returns for skilled labor,” Flynn said of the opportunities created by the energy industry. “What you’re seeing now is technological change allowing for higher returns to unskilled labor.”