By Matt Weisner, cross-posted from The Guardian
Antwain Nelson held various jobs in the construction field for several years, but the work never felt fulfilling. Then an opportunity to volunteer in low-income neighborhoods introduced him to his current job and, he says, a clear career path.
“The first day, I fell in love with it,” says Nelson, 25, an installer of solar energy systems and a lifelong resident of Washington DC. The people he works with, he says, feel “like another family to me”.
Nelson is one of thousands of new hires in the US solar industry, which has become the fastest growing sector in the energy business. Solar employment has more than doubled since 2010, reaching 209,000 employees by November 2015, according to The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit that offers research and educational programs to promote solar. The industry created about 35,000 of those jobs in 2015 alone.
In a report released in November, the foundation projects another 30,000 new jobs through the end of 2016 – a 14.7% annual increase, or 13 times faster than the overall economy.
The rise in solar employment comes as jobs in the coal industry are declining sharply. There are reports of some former coal workers transitioning to new jobs in solar. But this may not be possible for the whole sector, as the top coal-producing states have not been hotbeds of solar development. Coal states such as Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky don’t even rank among the top 35 states for solar installations over the past two years, according to GTM Research.
The top three states with the most solar jobs, from manufacturing to retail, are California, Massachusetts and Nevada, the foundation says. Unsurprisingly, job growth is taking place in states that offer generous rebates and other incentives for producing and installing solar energy equipment.
The solar market is largely growing on the backs of workers who hoist solar panels up to roofs to assemble and wire them together. More than half of the solar jobs nationwide involve installation, says Andrea Luecke, the foundation’s executive director.
The country’s largest solar installer also is becoming a major manufacturer. SolarCity is building what will become the nation’s largest solar panel manufacturing plant in Buffalo, New York. The company expects the new plant, which is set for completion later this year, to create 1,460 new full-time jobs. Other manufacturers with expansion plans include Suniva, which announced plans last September to grow its Norcross, Georgia, panel manufacturing plant and create about 500 new jobs.
“The employers that we surveyed were very bullish and said we’ve had a couple of rough years but we’re planning to invest in our workforce and we’re growing,” Luecke says.
That growth has come with jobs that offer good pay. Installers earn a median pay of $21 per hour, the foundation says, while factory assemblers earn a median of $18 per hour. Both are above the national median pay of $17.04 per hour for all jobs.
But one of the biggest challenges posed to this new and growing market is finding qualified workers. Luecke says solar employers are able to draw workers from a variety of construction and manufacturing fields because they require employees with many of the same basic skills learned in other areas of hands-on work, from oilfield laborers to home builders. Even so, about 20% of employers polled by the foundation said it was “very difficult” to find qualified employees in 2015, a slight increase from the prior year.
“What employers are looking for is experience – somebody who has been up on a roof before, has worked with electrical systems before, has been on some kind of construction crew, can follow directions and safety protocol,” she says.
Nelson got into solar through a career training program offered by Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a Washington DC nonprofit that helps inner city young people lead more stable lives. In 2014, it brought a group of volunteers to help a project by Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit energy company that builds solar projects for low-income families.
“I feel as though I’m headed down a good path, and it’s fun,” says Nelson. “Being able to put solar on another person’s roof is great, because you’re saving them money. I love the mission.”
Some employers also actively recruit military veterans, knowing that there has been a flood of them entering the workforce after America’s long military interventions in the Middle East.
One of those is Sam Gulland, who was a captain in the 75th Ranger Regiment in the Army and served two tours in Afghanistan before leaving the military last December. A Princeton University graduate with a degree in public policy and international affairs, Gulland started talking to friends about their plans after military service, and many were interested in alternative energy.
“I think vets are drawn to it because they come from work that carries lots of meaning,” Gulland says. “In general, I think clean energy carries that same kind of meaning. At some point, fossil fuels will run out. Global warming, if we don’t do something about it, could kill millions of people.”
Gulland found the US Department of Energy’s Solar Ready Vets program, which connects veterans with jobs in the solar industry, and the research led him to Grid Alternatives, where he began volunteering.
That was how Gulland recently found himself working alongside Nelson to install a solar energy system at a home in Washington DC in May this year. Gulland helped unload solar panels from a truck and tested the panels to ensure they produce the proper voltage before they go up onto the roof.
It is still uncertain how long the solar employment boom will last because the industry heavily depends on government tax incentives to thrive. Congress recently extended a key tax credit for another five years, a move that provides near-term assurance to solar employers.
But politics are as shifty as economics, and there are no guarantees. SolarCity and its major competitor, Sunrun, recently stopped selling and installing solar in Nevada when the state increased the fees that homeowners will have to pay to put solar panels on their roofs.
Luecke says she expects solar employment to plateau within the next 10 to 20 years, partly because installers and manufacturers will become more efficient to keep costs down as they gain more experience in the market. In the meantime, there is still a lot of opportunity for growth, she says, because solar generation only accounts for 1% of America’s electricity market.
“Our growth rates are high because we’re starting from a small base,” she notes. “We’re going to become more automated, using more snap-on technology, using more robotics in manufacturing. The growth will then be a lot more tempered.”