TODAY’S STUDY: Solar Jobs By The Numbers
National Solar Jobs Census 2016
September 2017 (The Solar Foundation)
The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census 2016 is the seventh annual edition of current employment, trends, and projected growth in the U.S. solar industry. To keep pace with the industry’s rapid transformation, The Solar Foundation conducts annual employer surveys of the domestic solar labor force and gathers perspectives on job growth and future opportunities.
The results from Census 2016 are based on rigorous survey efforts that include more than 500,000 telephone calls and over 60,000 emails to known and potential energy establishments across the United States, resulting in a total of 3,888 full completions for establishments involved in solar activity in the U.S. Unlike economic impact models that generate employment estimates based on economic data or jobs-per-megawatt (or jobs-per-dollar) assumptions, the National Solar Jobs Census series provides statistically valid and current data gathered from actual employers.
This year’s Census found that the solar industry continues to outpace most other sectors of the economy, adding workers at a rate nearly 17 times faster than the overall economy and accounting for 2% of all jobs created in the U.S. over the past year. The Solar Foundation’s long-term research shows that solar industry employment has grown by 178% since 2010, resulting in over 166,575 new domestic living-wage jobs.
As of November 2016, the solar industry employs 260,077 solar workers, representing a growth rate of 24.5% since November 2015. Meanwhile, U.S. businesses added just over 2.07 million jobs at an annual growth rate of 1.45%.1 Over the next 12 months, surveyed employers expect to see total employment in the solar industry increase by 10%—10 times faster than the overall economy is expected to grow—to approximately 286,000 solar workers.
This report includes up-to-date information on the solar industry, information on the potential for further growth, and on factors that are likely to impact the industry over the coming years. In addition to the above statistics, the following were observed as of November 2016:
• 2016 was the fourth consecutive year in which solar employment grew by approximately 20% or greater. At 24.5%, 2016 growth exceeded each of the three previous years’ 20% growth.
• One out of every 50 new jobs created in the U.S. over the 12-month period was created by the solar industry
• Solar is a major source of new U.S. jobs. Of the 51,000 solar workers added since November 2015, 80% were newly created positions, with the remaining comprised of existing positions that have added solar responsibilities (20%). Of the more than 260,000 solar workers in the United States, approximately 89% spend 100% of their time on solar-related activities.
• Despite representing only approximately 1.3% of overall energy generation, the solar industry ranks second in total employment among energy industries. Solar employs slightly more workers than natural gas, over twice as many as coal, over three times that of wind energy, and almost five times the number employed in nuclear energy. Only oil/petroleum has more employment (by 38%) than solar.3
• Employees of installation companies accounted for 17,200, or 34% of the new solar jobs added in 2016. Project development and the “other” sector experienced the highest rates of growth, each exceeding 50%. Project development also added the second most number of jobs, with almost 12,000 new workers, representing 23% of new solar jobs.
• Demand-side sectors (installation, sales and distribution, and project development) make up about 78% of overall solar industry employment. Installation firms account for the largest share of the solar workforce at 53%. Manufacturing comprises the second largest share at almost 15%, followed by the project development sector (13%).
• Approximately 41% of the 260,077 solar jobs were mostly in the residential market segment, while 28% were in commercial and 31% were in utility-scale project development. Utility-scale development is less labor intensive than residential, so there are fewer utility-scale jobs despite the greater amount of utility scale capacity.
Nearly one in four employers (23%) report that it is “very difficult” to find qualified employees and 80% report that it is at least somewhat difficult. The installation and project development sectors had the most difficulty hiring. About a quarter of those establishments reported that it is “very difficult” to find qualified employees. After significant increases from 2014 to 2015, the 2016 changes were less substantial. For example, difficulty hiring for utility-scale project development firms nearly doubled from 12.5% to 24.5% from 2014 to 2015, but increased only slightly from 2015 to 2016.
• Wages paid to solar workers remain competitive with similar industries and provide many livingwage opportunities. Companies listing job postings for solar installers advertised a median wage of $26 per hour.
• More women and racial and ethnic minorities are working in solar. Women represent a greater proportion of the solar workforce than in previous years, having risen steadily from 18.7% in 2013 to the 28% reported in 2016. The increase from 2015 to 2016 represented the largest annual jump to date, moving from 24% to 28%. Minorities also experienced increases in solar workforce participation since 2013, although not to the same degree.
• Experience is the most important hiring requirement for all sectors, with 65% of establishments requiring experience, compared to 32% requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher. Just over 18% require a technical certificate or credential and just under 13% require an associate’s degree, but not a bachelor’s degree. Since Census 2015, requirements for experience and bachelor’s degrees have decreased while the percentage of employers seeking associate’s degrees and/or a technical credential or certificate has increased.
• Solar jobs are in all 50 states. In 2016, state-level data shows the number of solar jobs increased in 44 of the 50 states. A complete table of solar jobs by state, along with state growth rates over 2015, can be found in Appendix A. More detailed state and local data will be available in March 2017 at SolarStates.org…
Conclusions and Recommendations
The U.S. solar industry continues its well-documented, positive growth trajectory, posting 24.5% employment growth from 2015 to 2016, and 178% job growth since 2010. All sectors across the entire value chain of solar goods and services experienced broad-based employment gains in 2016. All sectors have experienced significant gains since 2010, most notably the installation sector, which has tripled in size.
The industry ramped up employment toward the end of 2015 in preparation for the anticipated 2016 ITC expiration and amidst declining hardware costs. Despite the December 2015 ITC extension, 2016 employment grew substantially, since many of the larger utility-scale projects were already well into the development process at year end. Although the utility-scale project development sector is less labor intensive than the residential or commercial sectors on a per MW basis, the doubling of utility-scale installed capacity was enough to result in a record-breaking year of solar employment growth and the fourth consecutive year of 20% growth of greater. Given that much of the ITC-inspired development took place in 2016, 2017 will show continued growth, but at a lower rate. For 2017, establishments expect 10% employment growth.
Longer term trends and policies remain strong. They include:
• Declining cost of solar power;
• Extension of the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) until 2021; • State renewable portfolio standards (RPS);
• Other state and local incentives; and,
• Solar + storage potential to drive market expansion.
In Census 2015, we also noted that momentum from the Paris Summit (COP 21) on Climate Change and the Clean Power Plan (CPP) would support solar deployment long term. These items are no longer considered significant factors given the change in administration. Despite the anticipated end of the CPP, many states continue to move forward to meet their RPS commitments. These state-by-state policies will support solar deployment alongside its continued emergence as an economically viable, domestic power source that creates American jobs and advances the nation’s energy independence.
There are other barriers that could disrupt or slow growth:
• Continued decline in fossil fuel prices, especially natural gas;
• Changes in state net metering laws that discourage distributed power generation;
• Worker skill shortages; and,
• Policy intransigence for solar + storage.
Taken together, the opportunities outweigh the barriers. A continued decline in natural gas prices would likely accelerate the use of natural gas over coal, rather than solar power. Furthermore, solar costs are also expected to continue to decline. Utility-scale solar is already at cost parity with fossil fuels in some markets. Changes to net metering pose a significant risk for distributed solar. As more and more households develop solar rooftop power, groups will push for more fees and cuts to retail pricing. New opportunities in energy storage and smart grids may counterbalance some of these challenges as our energy system adjusts to meet modern needs.
Worker skill shortages are a concern. Prior to the Great Recession, labor skill shortages were prevalent throughout the building trades. Although the slow recovery has mitigated a return to skill shortages, solar establishments reported a jump in hiring difficulty from 2014 to 2015; those reporting that it was very difficult to hire jumped from 17.2% to 24.2%. In 2016 this metric dropped back to 22.7%. The broader measure for hiring difficulty, that includes both very and somewhat difficult to hire responses, increased from 75.9% in 2015 to 78.2% in 2016.
Given the projected slowdown in 2017 employment growth to 10%, we expect less pressure on hiring nationally, although select states could experience difficulties. Hiring difficulty is also influenced by hiring in the related trades. If the economy—and specifically construction—remains strong, the solar industry will experience greater competition for workers, making it more difficult to hire, driving up wages and installation soft costs.
One obvious way to limit the impact of rising soft costs is by increasing the supply of qualified workers through education, training, and apprenticeship. Given the stark differences among employers in reporting the use of on-the-job training, third-party training, and credentials, it is becoming clearer that the solar industry would benefit from a consistent framework for training and evaluating talent.
Local governments can play a key role in reducing other soft costs. Issues such as permitting and inspection are firmly within a local government’s ability to improve and streamline, and municipalities and counties can work with local utilities to cut red tape and align interconnection processes and timelines with the local government’s own practices.
Friendly community solar policies are also a means to deploy solar at a value to local community members. Community solar refers to programs in which members of a community own and benefit from a PV power system. More states each year are adopting policies to allow their residents access to this rapidly growing segment of the solar market. For example, in 2016, Maryland adopted final regulations for a state community solar pilot program, Hawaii underwent public comment on rules for a new community solar program, and state regulators in Massachusetts proposed a new community solar incentive program that would include positive modifications to how participants are compensated for solar generation.
Municipalities and counties can also demonstrate leadership in addressing soft cost issues not directly under their control. Financing costs can be addressed through educating local lending institutions on solar technologies and making them more comfortable with developing and offering financial products for solar. Customer acquisition costs can be addressed in part through public outreach and bulk purchasing (or “Solarize”) campaigns. The Solar Foundation and a team of national solar and local government experts provides no-cost technical assistance to help municipalities and counties address these and many other issues through the SolSmart program (www.SolSmart.org).
Based on these conclusions, we make the following recommendations for ensuring continued strong solar job growth:
Continue to Develop Training Infrastructure for the Solar Workforce
Without a skilled workforce, the industry cannot grow; thus, opportunities should be sought to train new entrants to the solar industry, as well as existing solar workers based on industry needs. Thirdparty training providers and employers should collaborate to create on-the-job training programs that use employer’s specific techniques and hardware in conjunction with classroom education. This approach could lead to a standardized classroom training curriculum that covers safety and basic installation techniques, providing employers a level of certainty in the skills and knowledge of any new hire. There is also a need to develop curriculum and training for new and growing technologies such as storage systems and micro-grids.
Targeted internship opportunities with local trainers and universities can give students hands on exposure to basic construction, electrical work, and solar installation. These programs should pool the resources of several smaller installation firms that cannot develop their own in-house training programs, allowing them to use economies of scale to provide affordable training.
In addition, the creation of a clearinghouse for available tools and resources in solar industry education and the development of a central solar jobs board would be invaluable in centralizing key information. There is currently a lack of awareness in the industry regarding a broad range of underutilized workforce development tools and resources.
Continue to Develop Bridge Programs for Veterans
Veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces continue to represent a larger proportion of the solar workforce as compared to the overall economy. This strong representation may be driven in part by a high degree of skill transferability between military occupations and solar jobs, which has been demonstrated by interviews with select solar employers conducted for the 2014 report Veterans in Solar: Securing America’s Energy Future, co-authored by The Solar Foundation and the Truman National Security Project. During The Solar Foundation’s administration of the nationwide Solar Ready Vets program, it has also been observed that service members appreciate the opportunity to continue service to their country by contributing to the domestic electricity supply and American energy security.
Despite these potential skills and ideological overlaps, some groups of veterans—especially those in the 18 to 24 age group—continue to grapple with high unemployment. Comparing the skills developed in military occupations with the needs of the industry can provide a deeper understanding of the opportunities on both sides and can enable former service members to more easily transition into jobs in the solar industry. Workforce training providers are aware of this opportunity, but need greater support to further develop the solar industry as a strong employer of military veterans.
In addition, workforce training providers and solar employers should become more familiar with the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the education and training opportunities it provides, and GI Bill course approval requirements in their state. Graduates of the Solar Ready Vets training are an excellent candidate pool, and employer participation as an industry partner is an easy way to connect with past and future graduates. Additionally, online portals such as the “Veteran’s Employment Center” (https://www.ebenefits.va. gov/ebenefits/jobs), provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, as well as “America’s Job Centers” run by the Department of Labor (http://www.servicelocator.org/ onestopcenters.asp), can help employers identify and connect with veterans seeking employment.
Promote Stability in State and Federal Policy
The U.S. solar industry continues to demonstrate its strength across the value chain. There is a very strong link between solar adoption and job creation. As has been the case with every domestic energy industry in our nation’s history, the solar industry continues to benefit from policies and incentives that accelerate growth and help bring the industry to scale, particularly those policies with the multiyear certainty needed to leverage project financing.
Access to capital is important for solar companies and consumers. Increasing the number and availability of solar financing options for home and business owners will help further drive solar adoption, leading to increased solar employment. Though the solar industry has continually proven its ability to develop and offer innovative financing solutions, there remain market gaps. For example, as solar prices have dropped, more homeowners are opting to own their solar array rather than assign ownership to an installer through a lease or power purchase agreement (PPA). Despite this, few financial institutions have solar loans, making it difficult to obtain financing.
Lower-income households face several inherent barriers to going solar. These barriers include being less likely to own their roof, having limited access to affordable financing, being more likely to live in buildings with deferred maintenance, and being unable to realize the financial benefits of fuel-free electricity because their utility bills are partially or fully subsidized. Finding ways to serve the low-income market is essential for the solar industry to continue to expand. The rapidly growing community solar market could serve such needs, and states around the country are experimenting with ways to do just that. Colorado, for example, has begun contracting the development of community solar projects solely dedicated to serving the needs of low-income Coloradans across the state.
Many households in the U.S. are aging, and therefore less likely to remain in their homes for the number of years that may be required for full-payback of their systems. Programs that allow loans to follow the home rather than the owner (such as property assessed clean energy, or PACE) could unlock this untapped potential.
Support Early Stage R&D, Finance, and Commercialization
Due in part to continued declines in the price of traditional solar goods, investment in early-stage finance and research and development is down. Technical innovation is critical for the long-term competitiveness of the industry. Given the uncertain returns on R&D investments expected in the private sector, the gap in research funding from private sources will likely persist, suggesting an increased need for public sector support of early stage research and commercialization on new and more efficient solar technologies and applications…