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Sunny Solar Jobs Forecast: Industry leaders shine a light on employment demand

By Chuck Ross | Oct 13, 2023
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For a decade or so, renewable energy supporters have claimed jobs in their industries would more than make up for the loss of those in fossil fuel fields as the nation transitions to carbon-free electricity generation.

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For a decade or so, renewable energy supporters have claimed jobs in their industries would more than make up for the loss of those in fossil fuel fields as the nation transitions to carbon-free electricity generation. It seems that prediction is quickly becoming true, as solar production and installation companies now are clamoring for workers.

The leading solar trade association sees employment in the industry potentially quadrupling in the next seven years. To meet this growing demand for labor, employers are getting creative with outreach to attract those just starting out in their careers.

More demand needs more jobs

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has set a target for solar energy to reach 30% of U.S. electricity generation by 2030, a goal that falls in line with the Biden administration’s equally ambitious push for solar to meet 40% of U.S. electricity demand by 2035. To get there, the administration anticipates the United States needs to add 30 gigawatts (GW) of capacity per year by 2025 and 60 GW from 2025–2030. According to first quarter 2023 figures from SEIA and Wood Mackenzie, we might be on the way to reaching at least the 2025 target, with a record 6.1 GW of solar capacity installed in the first three months of 2023.

The first quarter figures are heartening to solar proponents, given 2022’s lackluster performance. Supply chain slowdowns and tariff threats hit utility-scale projects especially hard last year. While annual residential solar installations grew by 40% in 2022, the utility market fell by 31%, versus 2021’s figures. These conflicting fortunes also played out in employment figures, with the utility­-scale market losing about 6,000 jobs, while residential solar gained about 9,500 jobs during 2022, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s (IREC) 2022 National Solar Jobs Census.

But utility-scale developers have gotten busy again, as more solar module importers have been able to provide documentation ensuring their panels aren’t being manufactured in restricted regions of China where forced labor practices are alleged to be taking place. As a result, first-quarter 2023 utility installations hit a new record of 3.8 GW of new solar capacity.

But solar jobs aren’t just in installation, especially as U.S. manufacturing is in growth mode, with a number of $1 billion-plus assembly plants now in planning or under construction. Combining installation and manufacturing, along with marketing and other roles, IREC’s survey found the U.S. solar industry employed more than 263,000 people as of the end of 2022.

Diversity in the solar industry

Beyond the numbers, IREC’s report also calls out some interesting demographics regarding solar industry employees. First, they’re relatively young, with 31% aged 18 to 29, and an added 56% aged 30 to 54. This group is also more diverse than the workforce at large when it comes to veterans and Asian, Hispanic and Latino workers. And women make up 30.6%.

The relative youth of the solar labor force is positive news, given the growth projected for the industry over the next decade. According to SEIA, reaching 30% of U.S. domestic energy production by 2030 will require more than a million workers, and bringing in younger workers could mean that fewer age out of the field in any given year. So, companies across renewable energy industries are doing more to showcase their opportunities.

According to Handshake, an online network for connecting early-career students with potential employers, the platform has seen an 86% increase in outreach among energy companies seeking Generation Z workers between June 2022 and June 2023, compared to only a 19% increase across all industries. Those efforts seem to be working, with the average number of applications for renewable energy jobs through Handshake up 71% between those years, versus just 35% across all industries.

Installation and manufacturing, especially, are technical jobs, so prospective employees need training before they can start putting panels in place. Internships are one way companies can build that knowledge base and, perhaps, create loyalty among possible full-time employees. First Solar and NextEra Energy, for example, have boosted their internship programs significantly, though many of these are in noninstallation departments. Training in-the-field­­ ­technicians—the most labor-intensive aspect of the industry—has been slower.

One difficulty in developing stronger hands-on training programs has been clarity on what, specifically, those classes should cover. Certification programs are available through IREC and the North American Board of Certified Energy Professionals, but there has been a lack of standardization in these efforts. 

In July, SEIA received approval from the ANSI to develop 11 new solar and energy storage standards, including for residential, commercial and industrial installer training. The standards will be developed in a multistep consensus process, similar to that used by other standards development organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association in its regular revisions of the National Electrical Code.

shutterstock / Allahfoto

About The Author

ROSS has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for more than 25 years. Contact him at [email protected].

 

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