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U.S. Solar Job Market Overview

May 21, 2019

The U.S. energy landscape is evolving – the increase of technological innovation, decreasing costs of renewable sources, a focus on efficiency, and a drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is forcing America to rethink fossil fuels. As solar energy emerges as a mainstream source of power, businesses are preparing to hire, train, and recruit new talent and to provide secure job opportunities for hardworking Americans. Those looking for a career move should consider the success of the solar industry and examine whether the industry could be right for them.

 

Impact

 

Climate change is an indisputable result of anthropogenic (human-generated) greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of these emissions are created by electric power and transportation, each representing about 28% of total U.S. emissions. Solar power, along with wind and energy efficiency has the potential to significantly lower emissions generated by the electric power sector. Solar power is energy generated naturally from the sun, which is converted into thermal or electrical energy. Not only is solar energy among the cleanest sources of energy available, it is abundant and renewable. As solar power continues to become more cost-efficient, it has the power to make up a larger share of the country’s energy needs. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect continued increases in jobs available in this market. 

 

Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S., by sector

 

The potential impact of transitioning to solar energy is massive. According to Project Drawdown, the four main solar technologies – solar farms, rooftop solar, concentrated solar, and solar water – have the potential to reduce global emissions by 78.48 gigatons of CO2 by the year 2050. A transition could result in a net cost savings of $9.67 trillion.

 

U.S. Solar Market

 

Although solar energy only generates about 2.4% of overall U.S. electricity, as of 2018, the industry employs twice as many workers as the coal industry.[1] The vast majority of solar industry employment is comprised of the installation sector, which represents 64% of all solar employment for a total of 155,157 jobs.[2] Florida, Texas, and New York led the growth of the solar job market in 2018 and 29 states experienced solar job growth.[3] Between 2013 and 2018, solar employment increased 70%, adding 100,000 new jobs.[4]

 

Top 10 State Markets, by Year [5]

 

 Solar Jobs

 

Workers don’t necessarily need advanced degrees or years of work experience to get involved in the solar industry. For example, entry-level solar assemblers and basic installers, which operate in the installation and project development sector, make an average of $28,640 per year and only need a high school diploma to apply.[6] More educationally advanced jobs in the installation and project development sector may include jobs like solar instructors or solar trainers, which may require a associate’s degree, certification, or licensure as an electrician. Solar instructors or trainers generally make $48,360 per year.[7]

 

Installation and Project Development by Segment [8]

Although the installation and project development sector has the largest share of jobs in the solar industry, the manufacturing industry also has excellent career opportunities. Materials scientists, for example, who have a postgraduate degree in physics, chemistry, or materials science, make roughly $91,980 per. A computer numerical control operator in the manufacturing sector, which requires a high school diploma and a post-secondary certificate, earns roughly $36,440 per year.[9]

 

Solar Employment by Sector [10]

 

Despite overall positivity in the industry, 26% of solar employers believe that it is very difficult to hire qualified employees often due to the lack of training or technical knowledge of applicants.[11] Like other solar companies, South Carolina-based Southern Current has approached this challenge by hiring entry-level employees and providing training to new hires. Employees can capitalize on this disparity, as solar employers increasingly offer incentives including on-the-job training, salary benefits, and professional development opportunities.

 

Widespread benefits are available to communities that invest in solar power employment. Many companies are investing in local workforce development that supports job growth in rural America. For example, the Arizona-based McCarthy Building Companies performs one million labor hours each year in solar, hiring 60% of their workforce from local communities.[12] McCarthy is not alone, installation contracting firm Swinerton Renewable Energy estimates that up to 90% of its workforce is hired from local communities, the communities where the projects take place.[13] These

companies make real change in communities providing full-time work and training for local residents. While manufacturing and construction are often considered the bread and butter of the solar employment, adjacent industries are expanding their workforce to meet solar needs. Consider California-based Aurora Solar, a software company that provides streamlined solar design and sales software to its customer base. Aurora provides solar energy related jobs in software engineering, sales, and marketing. The solar industry can offer rewarding careers and competitive wages to locals with wide-ranging skills, boosting the local and national economy.

 

Engineers are among the most in-demand workers in the field. But as the industry matures, it will look to decrease labor costs, which remain a major cost center. Brendan Neagle, Executive Vice President of Borrego Solar, said of the industry:

 

“We need engineering support to continue to drive the cost of solar down toward grid parity. I think the success of the industry includes reducing the large portion of direct costs related to the labor to install the racking, modules, and electrical equipment. The costs of all the materials are declining but the cost of labor is increasing. Therefore, I think some of the most important jobs will be in engineering and product design to move labor out of the field through next generation equipment design.”

 

Indeed, solar careers are not limited to manual work, as the solar industry provides diverse opportunities for nearly every sector. While the industry does employ a significant number of electricians and roof technicians, there are also options for administrative professionals. Project managers are often needed to oversee construction and end-to-end service. These types of jobs are ideal for workers who enjoy management, communicating with others, and traveling from site to site. For employees who prefer working in an office setting, accounting and marketing positions are available. Office jobs like these are perfect for those who prefer being indoors, creating blueprints for organizations, and focusing on overall company objectives. Those who like blueprints, enjoy problem solving and love technology, may be interested in one of the many positions in estimating and systems design. Employees who enjoy the thrill of the sale should consider business development or sales positions, which offer an opportunity to build friendly relationships across organizations. Regardless of the position, the solar industry has careers that suit a range of educational backgrounds, skills and interests.

 

Solar Career Resources

 

There are a variety of resources available for interested entrants to the solar job market. Solar Power International offers events and workshops to learn more about solar technology, markets, and policy. Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has a LinkedIn group for solar professionals, which allows them to share news articles, facilitate discussions, and pose questions to the solar network and industry peers. Even the U.S. government’s Department of Energy partnered with the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) to provide a Solar Career Map to help prospective employees explore and understand the diversity of jobs across the industry. The Department of Energy has shown support for the solar market by funding the Solar Training Network, a resource for job seekers, training providers, and employers so that they may connect and expand the workforce. The Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment (GEARED) program is another resource that provides research, training, and education to current and future utility sector professionals so they may best operate solar electric grids.

 

Solar Industry Jobs

 

 *2019 Figures Projected [14]

 

 

The solar industry predicts a 7% increase in employment following a two-year job loss streak.[15] Solar Head of State Director James Ellsmoor said,

 

"The solar job industry is booming in the United States and worldwide, with an increasing upwards trend. Despite a slight fall in 2018 due to new tariffs on solar panel imports, there is a general upward momentum and the industry is going from strength to strength. With the start of decreasing prices from energy storage, we will only see a greater role for the industry in the coming years."

 

There is evidence to support this claim as the industry expects to reach more than 2 million installations in early 2019. Long-term developments, including the reduction in installation costs and increasing government incentives, are likely to encourage industry growth this year. Residential installation costs hit a historic low in 2018, while a number of states began implementing aggressive renewable energy targets. Solar energy cost have declined to as low as $0.029/kWh, while average global coal prices have historically been about $0.06/kWh.[16] Economic and policy trends indicate that the future is favorable toward industry growth, and industry workers are set to benefit from the trend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

[1] The 2018 U.S. Energy and Employment Report. National Association of State Energy Officials, and Energy Futures Initiative, May 2018. https://www.usenergyjobs.org/

[2] National Solar Jobs Census 2018. The Solar Foundation.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] U.S. Solar Market Insight. Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables, March 2019

[6] https://www.irecsolarcareermap.org/jobs/solar-assembler-basic-installer

[7] https://www.irecsolarcareermap.org/jobs/solar-instructor

[8] National Solar Jobs Census 2018. The Solar Foundation

[9] https://www.irecsolarcareermap.org/jobs/computer-numerical-control-cnc-operator

[10] ibid

[11] National Solar Jobs Census 2018. The Solar Foundation.

[12] Ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] The Solar Foundation

[15] National Solar Jobs Census 2018. The Solar Foundation.

[16] https://news.energysage.com/solar-energy-vs-fossil-fuels/

 

 

 

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