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A clean energy jobs gut check

Is the move to net-zero, electrification and grid decarbonization creating jobs? It's a mixed bag.

Clean energy jobs

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For stock market traders, the U.S. Department of Labor’s monthly jobs report is usually the biggest event of the month. Waiting for that number the first Friday of every month is like getting the results of a blood pressure test at the doctor’s office. You have a feeling on how the economy is going, but you aren’t completely sure until you see the real-world numbers underneath.

Getting that real-world gut check on energy transition jobs has been a bit more complicated.

On one hand, the expectations are certainly there. A report from EY Parthenon this month predicted 10 million potential jobs could be created worldwide from today’s visible pipeline of 13,000 renewable energy projects. We’ve seen strong asset flows into climate finance — the WilderHill Clean Energy Index is up 69 percent in the past year — suggesting clean energy companies have a mandate to grow.

And, of course, when you talk to people in the sustainability space they often say how they are worried about a war for ESG talent.

The pandemic threw a wrinkle into a growth trajectory that has made the energy sector extremely focused on hiring.

The energy transition, however, affects a variety of sectors and tracking jobs is a crucial way to know what’s really going on — so it was great to see the Department of Energy this week return to releasing a U.S. Energy Employment Report. (The DOE’s report had been produced externally for the past several years, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics had canceled its green jobs tracking program in 2013.)

Here’s what it found:

  • The energy sector is rebounding quickly. Jobs were lost amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which initially cut the size of the total U.S. energy sector by about 10 percent, to 7.5 million jobs from 8.4 million. At the same time, energy companies added 560,000 jobs, recovering nearly half of those lost.
  • Energy-efficiency jobs suffered in 2020 — falling 11.4 percent — but employers expect a 10.1 percent job increase.
  • The fuels sector saw the largest percentage decline in employment — an 18.4 percent decrease in 2020, amid job declines in oil, natural gas and coal.
  • Electric vehicle jobs grew by 8 percent and hybrid electric vehicle jobs rose 6 percent.
  • Solar photovoltaic firms saw an 8.1 percent decline in jobs during the pandemic, while wind energy jobs grew 1.8 percent.

Before the pandemic, the energy sector was growing twice as fast as the economy as a whole and the fastest-growing job was a wind-turbine technician, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm noted in a virtual roundtable on the new data.

The pandemic threw a wrinkle into a growth trajectory that has made the energy sector extremely focused on hiring. It turns out, hiring people in energy is difficult across all sectors. Most of the fuel sector and coal electric power generation companies in the DOE report said it was very or somewhat difficult to find job applicants, but so did most hydroelectric and solar power generation employers.

That hiring difficulty seems to be reflected in how energy workers are paid — energy jobs as a whole are paying 34 percent more than the average U.S. wage, and traditional energy jobs usually had slightly higher wages than clean energy jobs. Those jobs are very different, though, and require different levels of personal risk: Imagine going to work to inspect a solar farm in a large field in the open air, versus traveling to a remote coal mine or operating a deep-sea oil rig.

The gut check on today’s clean energy jobs shows that growth will include some volatility in the transition to clean energy. The growth of sectors such as electric vehicles will depend on and be tied to growth in other sectors such as renewables, battery storage and electric grid upgrades. Clean energy jobs are speeding up, but transitions will occur at varying speeds, depending on the availability of materials, talent and policy.

The newest data makes clear that our energy system has a wider reach than polarized political debates sometimes make it seem. Combined, over 5 million people are working in energy transmission, energy efficiency and motor vehicles, while those who work directly in fossil fuels or wind and solar power generation total in the hundreds of thousands. The energy industry will have to expand beyond the base of workers that exist today to accommodate the clean energy transition. That’s why the energy transition is an all-hands-on-deck exercise.

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