Job search and matching
Research Summary

Who Transitions from Dirty to Green Jobs?

Joe Peck December 19, 2023
Source: NBER Working Paper Title: Workers and the Green-Energy Transition: Evidence from 300 Million Job Transitions Author(s): E. Mark Curtis, Layla O'Kane, and R. Jisung Park Original Publication Date: August 2023 Read Full Research Article

The United States is in a period of significant energy transition. Carbon-intensive industries such as coal mining, oil and natural gas extraction, energy-intensive manufacturing industries, and petroleum refining provide fewer jobs every year. Simultaneously, greener industries—those in the renewable energy sector or in the manufacture of electric vehicles—continue to grow and take up a larger slice of the labor force.

Using recent data that represent over 130 million workers, E. Mark Curtis, Layla O'Kane, and R. Jisung Park analyze the jobs that workers recently left and the ones they moved into. They find that very few workers leave carbon-intensive (“dirty”) jobs to work in noncarbon-intensive (“green”) ones. However, more workers are making this transition than ever before.

As the economy continues to change, this research has important implications for how workers in shrinking industries can be economically supported and how policy might facilitate employment opportunities for this green transition.

Key findings
  • In recent years, fewer than 1 percent (approximately 0.7 percent) of workers who leave dirty jobs move into green industries. Simultaneously, around 2 percent of new hires in green jobs come from dirty industries.
  • The share of workers who moved from dirty to green jobs has gradually risen and was considerably greater in 2021 than it was in 2005, when only 0.1 percent of workers made this transition. This trend is facilitated by the number of green jobs available. In particular, the rapid growth in manufacturing and sales of electric vehicles has allowed more workers from dirty industries to transfer to green ones.
  • Young workers are most likely to transition from dirty jobs to green jobs. Workers aged 25 to 34 most often shift from dirty jobs into green ones (0.42 percent of this age group), and each succeeding age group is less likely than the last to make this transition. Only 0.17 percent of the oldest workers (age 65 and above) make the transition, less than half the rate at which 25- to 34-year-olds do.
  • Workers in dirty jobs are most likely to transition to jobs in the same sector (other dirty industries), primarily due to a lack of green job opportunities. Older workers and workers with less formal education are most likely to stay in dirty industries when switching jobs (compared to younger workers and workers with higher educational attainment, respectively). The persistence of employment in dirty industries also varies by geography.
Policy and practice implications

WorkRise has identified the following implications for policy and practice.

Implications for policymakers:

  • Local policymaking could reduce geographic frictions to job transitions. Workers tend to be tied to a certain geographic place. Local policymakers, such as mayors and other local government officials, have a part to play helping workers search for, and match to, green jobs. Place-based employment policies, such as local hiring subsidies, could foster better job matching from dirty to green jobs across different regions.
  • Legislation could spur green job creation. To bolster the creation of these jobs (and therefore facilitate dirty-to-green job transitions), states and local authorities could follow the path of the Inflation Reduction Act and implement their own green-energy plans. Legislation in California and Rhode Island provide a road map for this. Policy could further protect workers moving to these jobs by offering incentives to companies that offer high-quality jobs.

Implications for practitioners:

  • Help train workers for new jobs to protect their economic mobility. There are many frictions that inhibit workers from finding new jobs. Often, it is expensive for companies to find or train new staff. Organized labor, alternative labor, and worker training organizations each have a role to play in ensuring workers have the skills needed for the green jobs transition. Groups like these might offer training courses to reskill those in carbon-intensive jobs. The worker center model could offer a blueprint for retraining programs of this kind.

Implications for researchers:

  • Account for geographic variation in job transitions. States including Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Texas have some of the highest rates of dirty-to-dirty job transitions, yet states such as Kansas and Alaska have much lower rates. This suggests that neither the isolation of local labor markets (a side product of low population density) nor the number of existing carbon-intensive jobs are good indicators of dirty-to-dirty transitions. More research is needed to disentangle exactly what facilitates these transitions within dirty industries in some areas more than others.
  • Seek to better understand the cause of job transitions. This study is not able to discern between workers who involuntarily leave a company from workers who move to a better-matched or higher-paying job. More research could analyze the extent to which voluntary job separations, the “pull” factors, are a significant cause behind dirty-to-green job transitions such that policymakers and practitioners might encourage them in the future.

As the green transition picks up pace, the number of dirty-to-green job transitions are also on the rise. Though the rate at which these transitions occur remains low, there are considerable differences in transition rates between ages and educational attainment. To ensure workers are trained for the jobs of tomorrow and that no worker is left behind, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers each have a role in understanding the best methods for improving search and matching practices in these industries.

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