The Clean Energy Workforce

A Powerhouse of Accessible Employment Opportunities

The Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship (PIA) collaborates with leaders from government, the clean energy sector, advocacy organizations, community organizations, professional associations, research organizations, and academia to help make the clean energy talent pipeline more inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities. Apprenticeship programs and other workforce development programs can build a pipeline of diverse, untapped talent to fill a growing number of clean energy jobs.

About this Paper

The energy economy powers U.S. homes and businesses, lights our streets, and enables us to freely travel around the U.S. by a range of modes of transportation. Indeed, energy use and development form the backbone of the modern developed world. They also serve as a major driver of gainful employment and career paths in the U.S. and many other countries. At the end of 2021, the energy workforce represented more than 5 percent of total employment in the U.S. (when including electric power generation, transmission, extraction, fuel storage, energy efficiency, and motor vehicles).1,2 Although the COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant economic slowdown in 2020, employment in the energy sector still involved 7.5 million workers and in 2021 saw greater growth than the overall economy.

Within this workforce, clean energy employment represents a significant and fast-growing share. Clean energy—namely, wind and solar power—represented 81 percent of all new energy capacity installed in the U.S. in 2021.3 In addition, annual electric vehicle car sales in the U.S. grew by 89 percent in 2021.4

The term “clean energy,” in this context, is not limited to solar and wind energy. It includes an array of cleaner and more efficient technologies that can help reduce dependency on fossil fuels in the coming decades. The clean energy sector includes the workers who install efficient lighting systems, convert building heating and cooling systems to heat pumps, assemble the next generation of electric vehicles, and support the battery manufacturing supply chain, among many other job roles and specific sectors. If growth in these areas meets rates projected by the Federal Government and other research institutions, the U.S. can expect millions of new job opportunities.5 Furthermore, these job opportunities are geographically dispersed, as clean energy technology manufacturing, installation, and related professional services extend far beyond regions historically associated with the extraction of fossil fuels.

Jobs by Sector

Employment opportunities and career paths abound across the clean energy spectrum. Some of the most well-known opportunities are in electric power generation. Both solar and wind energy technologies are more labor-intensive (per unit of energy produced) than other older technologies such as coal and natural gas. As a result, these forms of clean energy comprise a major portion of all jobs in this sector. Fortunately, without ongoing fuel costs, solar and wind are cost-competitive resources in both wholesale and retail electricity markets, ensuring long-term future growth for installations and employment.

Although nearly a half million energy workers are in the solar and wind sectors, they do not all work on rooftops or erect wind turbines. Many of those workers spend their time in more traditional roles, such as sales, administrative positions, professional services, and supply chain management. For example, in the energy efficiency sector, which comprises two million workers, only about 32 percent in the sector work in installation or repair.6

Whether a business manufactures ENERGY STAR appliances, installs heating and cooling systems, retrofits lighting systems with more efficient technologies, or develops advanced building materials, a wide variety of positions are needed. Such variety creates opportunity for people of all skills and abilities.

One of the greatest areas of opportunity is in the motor vehicles sector. At present, there are nearly two million positions tied to the manufacturing of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles. That is approximately ten times as many people as are involved in electric or partially electric-powered vehicles. Nevertheless, electric vehicles are expected to become a majority of vehicles on the road by 2050.7 In the fourth quarter of 2021, electric vehicles represented 5 percent of all new vehicle sales in the U.S., which is in keeping with a sales trend seen in other countries in which a slow phase of initial sales by electric vehicle early adopters is followed by a compounded level of rapidly increasing sales by more mainstream shoppers once such vehicles surpass 5 percent of overall vehicle sales.8 Experts estimate that such a trend will now lead to electric vehicles reaching a quarter of all new electric vehicle car sales in the U.S. by 2025.9

Employment Challenges and Opportunities

Despite employment contraction in 2020, growth trends for these fields of clean energy technology over the last decade have risen. Not surprisingly, employers in this sector reported difficulty finding candidates with the training, certifications, and skills needed to fill these positions. For example, 87 percent of construction employers in electric power generation reported that it was somewhat difficult or very difficult to hire new employees.10 The limited diversity of the industry’s talent pool further adds to these employment challenges. The energy sector has fewer women and people of color than the overall economy. While some areas, such as electric power generation, are more diverse than others, it is critical to foster equitable access to the economic opportunities that can result from energy infrastructure investments.

One means of diversifying the clean energy talent pool is making the industry more accessible. People with disabilities can bring a wealth of untapped talent and diverse perspectives into the clean energy sector, filling jobs ranging from solar power installers to systems engineers and market analysts. However, people with disabilities are underrepresented in the clean energy workforce. As of September 2022, approximately 33 million of the 264-million-person civilian labor force over 16 years of age has a disability.11 Employment outcomes for the two groups are quite different: the labor force participation rate for both men and women with no disability 16 to 64 years of age is more than double than for those of the same age with a disability;12 the unemployment rate for both men and women with a disability 16 to 64 years of age is more than double than for those of the same age with no disability;13 and workers with a disability are twice as likely to work part-time.14

Fortunately, the recent growth of telework may be a key factor in the rising employment of people with disabilities since the COVID-19 pandemic.15 In principle, millions more Americans could enter the job market if companies would expand their focus on full inclusion of workers with disabilities.16 For example, an apprenticeship program that is designed to be inclusive of people with disabilities can help build a more inclusive solar industry and create a diverse talent pipeline of valuable workers. Apprenticeship programs provide participants with paid “earn while you learn” training through classroom instruction and structured on-the-job training with an experienced mentor. Inclusive apprenticeship programs can take apprenticeships a step further, when specifically designed to be accessible to and inclusive of all trainee workers, including people with cognitive, neurological, physical, mental health, and sensory disabilities. In turn, recruiting and hiring these career seekers can help foster more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible workplaces.

Launching an inclusive apprenticeship program can offer a cost-effective way to help companies of all sizes diversify their workforces, reduce turnover and absenteeism, boost productivity, and more. All these factors can drive a company’s mission and yield key advantages for its bottom line.

Employers should consider exploring how apprenticeship programs can help prepare and train the future workforce by learning more about the value of inclusive apprenticeship programs and how the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship is advancing career paths in the clean energy sector.

References

[1] See: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Series CES0000000001

[2] See: U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Energy Employment Report 2022 (USEER)

[3] See: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

[4] See: Kelly Blue Book

[5] See: U.S. Department of Energy, Solar Futures Study 2021

[6] See: U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Energy Employment Report 2022 (USEER)

[7] See: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

[8] See: Bloomberg, “US Crosses the Electric-Car Tipping Point for Mass Adoption”, July 9, 2022

[9] Ibid.

[10] See: U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Energy Employment Report 2022 (USEER)

[11] See: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table A-6. Employment status of the civilian population by sex, age, and disability status, not seasonally adjusted

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] See: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “PERSONS WITH A DISABILITY: LABOR FORCE CHARACTERISTICS — 2021

[15] See: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Persons with a Disability: Barriers to Employment and Other Labor-Related Issues News Release

[16] Ibid.