To say that the political climate in the United States has reached a degree of polarization not encountered in decades would be an understatement. One of the most pressing debates in the national conversation actually involves the climate. On one side of the spectrum, people continue to reject the notion that humans have negatively impacted the ecology. Those across the aisle voice concerns that science itself has come under attack. Ideology and strongly held beliefs aside, at the heart of the political disagreement lurks the specter of economics—to a large extent, that really means employment. After the campaign speeches conclude and the scientific reports reveal their findings, the prevailing argument for or against alternative energy may boil down to jobs. And the research suggests that vibrant opportunities await those willing to invest in the alternative energy market. The tougher question, which all utilities have faced recently, is how to attract and retain fresh talent in an industry that lacks the perceived glamour of Silicon Valley.
Fossil Fuels May Be Going the Way of the Dinosaurs
In June 2017, President Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord, a 2015 worldwide agreement to combat the detrimental effects of climate change. A number of legislators in Washington have generally viewed green energy as a constraint that curbs economic expansion. Yet, employment projections and financial growth figures paint a different portrait. Coal and oil are not likely to spark the hiring bonanza of tomorrow. After all, they remain finite resources, which implies finite job opportunities in the future. But there’s a powerful economic case to be made for going green. Preserving the planet’s future may play an integral role in the future of business and talent acquisition.
When the moratorium on coal exploration and production was rescinded in 2017, the executive order also eliminated many environmental protections imposed by the Obama administration. The current administration has insisted that energy independence for fossil fuel industries, particularly coal, remains core to saving and creating jobs. Repealing policies that limit pollution, the argument goes, presents a more realistic employment solution than concentrating on the growth of renewables. But does this stance accurately reflect labor and economic trends?
In March 2017, the New York Times interviewed Robert W. Godby, a leading energy economist at the University of Wyoming. “The new order would mean that older coal plants that had been marked for closing would probably stay open for a few years longer, extending the demand for coal,” the Times noted, citing Godby. But he also cautioned that job creation would still suffer because the industry relies heavily on machines to automate processes.
“So even if we saw an increase in coal production, we could see a decrease in coal jobs,” he added. But would this decrease represent a significant dent on employment? And would it be related to the previous administration’s regulations? Again, the numbers don’t justify the claims, as the Times explained:
While the number of coal mining jobs has dropped in the United States, they do not represent a significant portion of the American economy. Coal companies employed about 65,971 miners in 2015, down from 87,755 in 2008, according to Energy Department statistics. And though the percentage of coal mining jobs dropped sharply, economists said that was not driven by the Clean Power Plan. Rather, they blamed two key forces: an increase in production of natural gas, which is a cheaper, cleaner-burning alternative to coal, and an increase in automation, which allowed coal companies to produce more fuel with fewer employees. The rollback of Mr. Obama’s regulations will not change either of those forces, economists say.
Solar and Renewables Shine
PV Magazine, a publication that focuses on photovoltaic markets and tech, recently reported that the U.S. solar industry hit record employment highs as production soared in the Southeast. “The solar industry, which represents 2.6% of overall U.S. electricity generation, already employs twice as many workers as the U.S. coal industry,” wrote Jean Haggerty, author of the article.
- Since 2010, the United States has added 250,000 jobs in alternative energy nationwide.
- Combined solar and wind will represent 78% of new energy generation this year.
- In 2019, Florida’s solar workforce grew 18% to 12,202 solar workers, and Georgia’s increased 30% to 4,798 workers.
- At 7,000 solar jobs, Nevada has the largest number of solar workers per capita nationwide, and California, with 74,255 solar workers and 40% of the cumulative solar capacity, remains the U.S.’s largest solar market
- Falling prices, environmental concerns and a rush to install solar panels before the investment tax credit (ITC) drops to 22% in 2021 are expected to drive residential solar jobs growth this year.
As any new industry takes hold in well-established economies, questions inevitably arise about employment in markets that are experiencing declines as a result. But solutions to these challenges are seldom be black and white. Yet this is often the argument against focusing on green energy. What happens to the workers involved in coal and oil? The answer is that many of their skills are transferable.
Adriaan Kamp runs a Dutch consultancy that advises national governments on transitioning to clean energy. Kamp spent 17 years as an oilman for Shell. Yet he recognized that for the energy sector to reach carbon neutrality by 2070, hundreds of thousands of workers would need to embrace the new archetypes of renewables and sustainable technologies.
He discovered that transitioning talent from fossil fuels to renewables was a relatively simple process, which he summarized in an interview with U.K. paper The Guardian:
In terms of skills, transitioning from old to new energy sectors should be comparatively straightforward. There’s “no magic” to renewable technologies, said Kamp. “Managing a wind farm or solar project is nothing a good oil and gas man who has built or organised facilities cannot manage.”
Despite a wealth of opportunities, consumer adoption, and transferable skills, hiring for the industry has remained a challenge. Citing the Solar Foundation’s census, Haggerty explained: “According to the job census, the hiring difficulties that solar companies reported a year ago are still a challenge. Last year, about 26% of all solar companies and 33% of solar installers said that it was difficult to find qualified candidates, the census said.”
In her piece for HR Technologist, Colleen Campbell also noted that “attracting and retaining utility talent poses a threat to the industry, but it also has created the opportunity for progressive utilities to reimagine how they attract talent.”
“According to our 2019 study,” she added, “only 6% of leaders believe their utility adequately recruits younger technical talent and nearly half (48%) believe their recruiting may not be enough to meet future needs. However, 80% of younger non-utility workers view utility careers positively and nearly 70% of non-utility workers would consider working for a utility. Closing this gap requires coordinated marketing, cultural, and educational focus.”
The challenge for utilities is familiar and two-fold: the retirement of Boomers at an accelerating clip (around 10,000 a day) and the cultural change needed to embrace digital skills as infrastructures modernize.
The need for newer talent with digital skills is heightened by the outdated technology and aging infrastructure slowing down the industry, especially in the face of climate-related disasters. Modernizing the country’s utilities infrastructure requires a robust workforce with strong technical know-how. Utilities need access to digitally savvy talent now more than ever. As emerging technologies such as battery energy storage, electric vehicles, and the Internet of Things (IoT) transform the industry, more technical skills are required across nearly every utility role.
In Campbell’s study, the majority of utility operators placed customer service at the top of their 2020 priorities list. But workers indicated that emphasizing the employee experience would do wonders in attracting and retaining the talent needed to drive innovation. Whether you’re in charge of an internal hiring organization or a staffing supplier providing workers to utility projects, there are a few key ways to achieve talent acquisition success.
Renewing the Commitment to Employees in Renewables
Invest in Workplace Tech
Utilities have dedicated themselves to implementing state-of-the-art power and delivery systems, but their workplace technologies haven’t necessarily seen the same level of devotion. As Campbell noted, today’s talent expect tools for collaboration, multichannel communications, analytics, development, and those that can support remote work. Investing in existing platforms that accommodate these needs will enhance efficiency, performance, and job satisfaction.
As new technologies infuse the industry, new skills are required to master them. Digital grids, robotics process automation (RPA), big data, and artificial intelligence (AI) are fast becoming components of alternative and traditional energy systems, moving some workers from manual duties to thinking roles. “This requires more than training,” Campbell explained. “It is shifting the organization to better align with strategy, helping employees embrace a new mindset, and educating employees on their changing roles and responsibilities.”
When upskilling becomes a priority, it facilitates retention, agility in the workforce, and aligns with the desires of younger talent to engage in new areas of innovation.
Values and Recruiting Strategies
As we’ve seen time and again, millennial talent place a high priority on work that benefits society and sustainability. This is precisely the message that alternative energy providers can promote. Employer branding and targeted messaging in recruitment efforts can go far in appealing to the mindset of skilled workers who long to associate themselves with cutting-edge companies that are making a difference in the world.
“Bring younger employees to recruiting efforts that can speak to these changes,” Campbell recommended. “Additionally, innovative strategies such as university partnerships on campus energy projects allow companies to engage the communities they serve and form early relationships with potential future candidates and support values alignment.”
Also remember to highlight the tremendous benefits that make the industry a boon for employment.
- Sustainability jobs represent a large and growing portion of the U.S. workforce across multiple sectors.
- Due to the on-site nature of many renewable and energy efficiency jobs, they cannot be outsourced.
- Most positions pay above average wages, making them highly appealing to skilled talent.
- Workers with experience in traditional energy roles can move into new positions, consult, or even mentor the incoming workforce as alumni experts.
- Clean energy and sustainability jobs exist in every state in America, and their numbers are rising.
For staffing professionals, green industries could easily become the next frontiers in a prosperous and emerging market.