Did you know that one in every 50 new U.S. jobs created in 2016 was in solar? We often think of the value solar energy offers in terms of bill savings and environmental benefits, but it also contributes substantially to the US economy through job creation.
Solar is adding jobs faster than the rest of the economy, and employs more people than most other energy sectors. Add to that the fact that solar offers meaningful jobs with living wages, and it’s clear that the solar industry is creating economic opportunity both on an individual level for workers and for the U.S. economy more broadly.
Data on recent trends in solar employment not only provide a lens for communicating the importance of the solar industry—essential for advocating for supportive policies—but also offer insights on steps you can take to set yourself up for career success.
With Labor Day around the corner, we thought it was the perfect time to dig into some solar jobs data. We explored the results of The Solar Foundation’s 2016 Solar Jobs Census—a rigorous survey of actual employers—as well as data for 2017 thus far. Whether you’re a business owner evaluating the landscape for growth, or an industry professional assessing your job prospects, these findings can help you know where you stand and identify opportunities to get ahead.
Solar is a Major Source of New Jobs
Between November 2015 and November 2016, the solar industry added 51,000 new positions. This growth (24.5%) resulted in a total of 260,077 industry workers at the end of that period. During this time, the industry added $84 billion to the US GDP!
In 2016, jobs in solar were added nearly 17 times faster than the overall economy. And, while 2016 was a banner year for solar growth (fueled in part by the anticipated expiration of the ITC), this strong growth was not an anomaly. The industry grew at a rate of 20% annually for each of the prior three years. In total, since The Solar Foundation began conducting its annual Jobs Census in 2010, industry employment has grown 178%, creating over 166,575 new domestic living-wage jobs.
Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016, The Solar Foundation, available at: SolarJobsCensus.org (Figure 1, page 9).
Solar also provides more employment opportunities than most other energy industries. Solar ranks second among energy industries in the number of people it employs, slightly exceeding the natural gas industry and surpassed only by the petroleum industry. Solar employs twice as many people as coal, three times as many as wind, and five times as many as nuclear energy.
In the words of Curtis Seymour, Program Director, Renewables and Grid, at the Energy Foundation, “Rapid growth in the U.S. solar industry is helping drive a profound transformation of our economy, bringing quality jobs to communities, lowering costs for families and businesses, and reducing America’s contribution to climate change.”
Looking at 2017 and Beyond
At the time of the 2016 Solar Jobs Census, surveyed employers anticipated an additional 10% increase in solar jobs by the end of 2017. While the year isn’t over and data to assess this projection isn’t yet available, it’s well known that 2017 has been a tougher year for solar—particularly compared to last year’s record-breaking growth.
Slower growth has been observed in both residential and non-residential sectors, a number of prominent industry players have experienced bankruptcies, and a pending trade case brought by bankrupt solar manufacturer Suniva is creating significant uncertainty.1 Market research released in June by GTM Research and SEIA predicts that new solar capacity this year will be 16% less than 2016. However, it’s important to note that this still represents growth; a total of 12.6 GWdc of new capacity is forecasted to come online.
Longer term, however, there are many reasons to believe that the outlook for solar is bright. According to the same market report, over the next five years total installed solar capacity is expected to nearly triple, and by 2022 over 17 GWs of solar are expected to be installed annually. And, with cities and states increasingly making commitments to address climate change, including California’s mandate of 50% renewable energy by 2030 and a recent commitment from several Northeast states to reduce carbon emissions 65% by 2030—there are strong indications that the solar industry has plenty of growth ahead.
Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016, The Solar Foundation, available at: SolarJobsCensus.org (Figure 2, page 11).
Solar Jobs Offer Economic Advancement
Not all jobs are created equal and there is a big difference between a job and a career. When examining the job creation impacts of solar, just looking at the number of jobs created doesn’t capture the full value of industry growth. It's essential to note that jobs in the solar industry are relatively well-paying and offer living wages.
The Solar Foundation’s Solar Census reports a median 2016 wage for solar installation jobs of approximately $26 per hour and approximately $45 per hour for sales and distribution workers.
Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016, The Solar Foundation, available at: SolarJobsCensus.org (Figure 18, page 41).
The solar industry also provides paths for low-wage workers in other roles to transition into positions with sustainable wages. The Solar Census notes that workers can make this transition in as little as 12 months with training in solar technologies, and that apprentice and entry-level workers in construction trades can advance into higher paying solar installer positions.
In the words of George Hershman, Senior Vice President and General Manager at Swinerton Renewable Energy, “It’s really a wide range of people that get hired into this industry... a great aspect of this business is that it isn’t an exclusionary trade. It’s a teachable job that can create opportunity for people and give them a skill.”
Actionable Insights for Job Seekers and Employers
Responses from employers about the hiring process indicate that there is strong demand for workers with industry experience. Almost a quarter of employers reported that it is “very difficult” to find qualified employees and 80% reported that it is at least “somewhat difficult.”
By far the leading reasons that solar employers cited for difficulty in filling open positions were 1) lack of experience, training, or technical skills; and 2) insufficient qualifications (certifications or education).
Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016, The Solar Foundation, available at: SolarJobsCensus.org (Figure 16, page 39).
Across all sectors in the industry, solar employers consider experience to be the most important hiring requirement. Experience is required by 65% of employers, while just 32% require a bachelor’s degree.
Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016, The Solar Foundation, available at: SolarJobsCensus.org (Figure 14, page 37).
These trends offer valuable insights on how you can improve your prospects, whether you’re an employer or an employee. For job seekers, the importance of experience in the solar sector indicates that seeking out opportunities to gain hands-on experience is a great move for increasing your desirability. Some organizations and programs that provide training include:
- The Solar Training Network: connects job seekers with training opportunities, in addition to sharing job openings
- Grid Alternatives: provides solar installation training to volunteers, including offering two certificate programs
- Solar Energy International: offers a wide variety of online and in-person technical training opportunities
- HeatSpring: offers numerous online courses in solar subjects
- The Clean Energy Leadership Institute: offers a competitive, educational fellowship for young professionals pursuing clean energy careers
As an employer, connecting with these types of programs that offer training and experience can provide a pipeline of qualified hires. Another potential source of great hires is the Solar Ready Vets program, which trains exiting military personnel for careers in solar. Interviews with industry employers have indicated a high degree of skill transferability between military occupations and solar jobs. Interested companies can sign up to be added to the program’s employer directory.
Why This Matters
Keeping a pulse on industry trends can help advance your solar career. Knowing patterns in job growth and projections for the market can help you prepare for booms (or busts). And, understanding the challenges employers face in filling new roles offers insights on how to make yourself more marketable.
More broadly, understanding the economic benefits solar provides is essential to effectively advocate for the industry. Many of the benefits of solar energy—like clean, carbon-free energy and utility bill savings—are well known, but the industry’s positive contributions to the economy are often overlooked.
The substantial job growth resulting from the rise of solar tells an important story. Narratives used to oppose supportive policies for solar are often based on ideas this trend proves wrong. These include the idea that sustainability must come at the expense of economic growth, or that other energy industries are significantly more important for jobs. The next time you confront these misconceptions, we hope this employment data comes in handy.