As the cost of producing renewable energy gets cheaper and the demand for renewable energy rises, jobs in green energy sectors are poised to rise. Until recently, research on both the quantity and nature of “green” jobs—jobs in solar, wind, and other renewable or clean energy sectors—in the United States has been limited. Lacking data on the number of green jobs in the economy and the occupations where they are most prevalent, researchers and policymakers have not been able to analyze the magnitude and impact of wind and solar jobs within the labor force with great certainty. Some research has focused on the skills and human capital needed for green jobs, how environmental regulations affect companies’ demand for green skills, and which industries might most easily provide green jobs in future. But these studies rely on occupation and industry information that do not necessarily capture the multidisciplinary and evolving nature of green jobs, which span traditional industrial and occupational boundaries.
Another way to judge whether a job is green or not is to look at the descriptions companies themselves give when advertising these positions. Using job vacancy data provided by Burning Glass Technologies, a labor market analytics firm, new research examines the frequency of jobs that need skills related to wind and solar energy sources as well as all jobs offered by firms specializing in these energy sources. In so doing, the researchers provide a portrait of a growing and increasingly significant part of the economy.
- Green jobs have experienced rapid growth over the past decade. In 2007, there were almost no postings for wind or solar job in the United States. Between 2013 and 2019, the number of newly advertised jobs in solar energy increased five times, while the number of vacancies in wind energy increased threefold. These trends have mirrored a huge rise in the amount of energy harnessed from resources like wind and the sun. In 2019, there were 13,438 new openings for wind jobs and 52,474 for solar jobs in the US. For comparison, that same year, there were 44,163 new opening for jobs in fuel extraction.
- Job postings in the renewable energy sectors are concentrated in certain occupations. Thirty-three percent of all jobs in solar energy are in sales (compared to around 11 percent in the job market as a whole), and 29 percent are in manufacturing, construction, installation, and maintenance (again, about three times as many as are in the economy as a whole). This is because around 80 percent of solar employees work on residential and commercial projects, so there is a much greater need to sell solar energy to companies and everyday consumers. The occupational distribution in the wind sector is even more narrow: around 50 percent of the jobs are in manufacturing, construction, installation, and maintenance.
- Many green jobs do not require a postsecondary credential, according to the authors’ analysis, contrary to previous research (PDF). These results should be taken with some caution, however, as the Burning Glass data don’t include educational requirements for every listed job opening. Among wind and solar jobs postings with educational requirements information, 40 percent only require a high school degree.
- Green jobs appear to offer a wage premium. Green job postings are in occupations that typically pay more than 20 percent above average. Among these jobs that only require a high school degree, workers are paid 30 percent more than average. For those with a bachelor’s degree, solar job occupations offer 5 percent more pay and wind jobs offer 10 percent more pay on average. In almost all cases, pay is also higher for green energy jobs than it is for those in fossil fuel extraction.
- High-paying green jobs are growing faster in areas most likely to lose jobs because of the decline in fossil fuel extraction. Geographic features (like a mountainous landscape) that are particularly hospitable to both the wind and fossil fuel extraction sectors may help explain this. However, even though solar and wind jobs are more common in predominantly blue-collar industries than in the labor force as a whole, they do not appear more regularly in areas that have seen a widespread decline in manufacturing. The opening of new wind jobs is most common in areas of the country that have experienced weak employment growth in the preceding 20 years.
- Solar jobs are more common in areas populated by a larger number of non-white workers than the US average, while the opposite is true for wind jobs. This might be down to the geographic distribution of these jobs as solar jobs are more common in warm weather states like Florida, Nevada, and California, with large shares of non-white workers, while wind jobs are more common in central areas like Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota.
Policy and practice implications
Based on the findings of this study, WorkRise identifies the following implications for policy and practice.
- The growth of renewable energy creates new avenues for workers without postsecondary credentials to gain green, higher-paying jobs. The number of green jobs continues to grow both in frequency and as a share of jobs in almost every industry internationally. The recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, expected to incentivize the number of good-quality jobs in these green industries, should only bolster this trend. The growth of green energy sectors amid various other changes to the economy will necessitate more research into the kind and standard of jobs being created.
- Policymakers must ensure that the move to a green economy is a just transition that benefits workers. As workers transition from carbon-intensive jobs and industries into green ones, there are certain provisions the government could take to protect the unemployed and ensure they have ample time to retrain for new jobs. Active labor market policies such as targeted workforce training programs have been shown to give significant benefits to workers within two to three years of their implementation, particularly those aimed at improving human capital accumulation. These effects are more pronounced for women and those who have suffered from long-term unemployment.
- Job search assistance programs can reduce unemployment and therefore reduce unemployment claims while raising wages for participants in the long term. Lifelong learning programs, a modern version of the Trade Adjustment Assistance for Workers program, and longer-term unemployment insurance could all help workers achieve economic mobility in the long term as our economy transitions away from carbon-intensive industries to sustainable ones.