The State of U.S. Energy Jobs

With market forces and policy changes, jobs in the energy sector are shifting. What’s next for these roles?
energy jobs

On June 1, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, which aims to reduce worldwide carbon emissions some believe contribute to global warming . The move faced pushback from global business executives, even sparking a first tweet from Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein deriding the decision.

Part of Trump’s motivation to withdraw from the agreement, he said, was that it was not in the best interest of American workers, particularly those in energy jobs that are traditionally targeted as contributing to climate change. News such as this sheds light on the changing state of energy jobs, which grow and shrink with government regulation and subsidies, as well as new technologies.

According to the United States Department of Energy’s “U.S. Energy and Employment Report” from January 2017, the U.S. energy workforce makes up 6 percent of all jobs in the country. Although some sectors, such as solar, oil and gas, are growing, others are shrinking, leading to different regions experiencing dramatically different effects.

“States such as California and Texas, which have abundant solar, wind, and fossil fuel resources, have shown dramatic employment gains, despite some losses linked to low fossil fuel prices. Coal-dependent states, such as West Virginia and Wyoming, have seen declines in employment since 2015,” the report said.

Currently, employment is strongest in oil and petroleum (515,518 jobs), natural gas (362,118) and solar (373,807). Remaining are wind, geothermal, bioenergy, hydropower, nuclear, coal and others. Women and minorities are employed more in electric power generation than in fuels, the report said. The fuels sector has more workers that are 55 and older.

Production and manufacturing are only part of the workforce in fuels (35 percent) and electric power generation (14.4 percent). There are more administrative positions available in electric power generation, but it’s easier to fill positions for fuels. Transmission, distribution and storage technologies are also a major part of the energy workforce, according to the report, with 2.3 million U.S. workers. Utility and construction firms employ 36 percent of this workforce, and 18 percent of the 2.3 million employees are working on infrastructure projects such as pipeline construction, the report added.

Despite the variety and number of these jobs, “The jobs in the energy sector itself are a small part of the overall economy, compared to the economy that low-cost energy enables,” said Joe Lassiter, senior fellow and a retired former professor of management practice in environmental management at Harvard Business School. Affordable, reliable energy allows Americans to do more and increase productivity. For example, the invention of the light bulb and availability of electricity means people can work beyond the hours of daylight, resulting in longer working hours, thus accomplishing more in a day.

Fast forward to now, when Americans not only have this technology, but the ability to choose where it comes from. In 2016, renewable energy accounted for 15 percent of electricity generation, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The State of Solar

The largest segment of electric power generation (as opposed to fuel) jobs are in solar, according to the “U.S. Energy and Employment Report.” It found that solar employs 43 percent of the generation workforce. Globally, solar is also expanding rapidly. For example, India’s solar capacity is expected to grow eight times its current capacity in five years, according to BBC.

Solar is expanding in part because of consumer tastes and its low carbon footprint, but government subsidies also are growing the industry. Corporations are investing in solar for their buildings, as if they’re buying their fuel upfront, said Alex Winn, program director at The Solar Foundation, a solar research and education nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

Many of these solar jobs are in construction, which are temporary positions, Winn said. However, “we don’t think of construction jobs as one-off opportunities,” he added, as these workers can continue to work additional projects later in their careers.

Future projections in solar jobs are around storage, which Winn said won’t add vast numbers of jobs overall but will increase hours for installation and jobs in manufacturing, distribution and account management.

Training in solar is necessary because it’s still a relatively new industry. Barriers to entry are low, said Tim Olson, director of legal affairs at The Solar Foundation. Employers are very accepting of those without experience but who have soft skills such as motivation to continue learning, he said. Business leaders in solar don’t have much of a choice but to train incoming workers. “There doesn’t exist this workforce pool of solar-trained employees already,” Olson said.

Future of Fuels

Beyond solar, Winn sees an increased interest in funding of apprenticeship programs, which President Trump recently ordered reviews on in an effort to boost workforce development. America’s aging infrastructure means that many of these training programs will fund expansion of the energy industries. “The trend of increasing training opportunities goes far beyond solar, and it will hopefully have some trickle-down effects into solar and other energy trades,” Winn said.

Another potential disruptor for the energy sector would be a proposed price on carbon emissions, which some concerned about carbon’s role in climate change support, including Harvard Business School’s Lassiter. This would allow consumers to react and redesign energy and transportation systems to emit the amount of carbon people are willing to pay for.

“That would unlock many, many more jobs than our existing system does,” rather than government subsidies and mandates, Lassiter said. Energy jobs would then have market-based forces controlling them, thus being more competitive internationally and more long-term, he said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.