US solar employers expect to bounce back from workforce loss this year, DOE report says

Most solar employment in the US is found in construction and installation activities. Image: Sol Systems.

Solar employers in the US are forecasting a rebound from job losses seen in the industry last year, estimating an employment increase across the sector of 11.7% in 2021, according to a new report from the Department of Energy (DOE).

The positive outlook comes after solar PV firms saw the greatest decline in jobs within the US power generation sector last year, shedding a net 25,700 workers – a decline of 8.1%.

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The 2021 US Energy Employment Report (USEER) found that although the energy sector had been one of the country’s fastest-growing job markets before the COVID-19 pandemic, it fell to 7.5 million jobs by the end of 2020, a decrease of 840,000 positions or 10% decline year-over-year.  

At the pandemic’s peak in mid-2020, energy jobs had decreased by 1.4 million but there were positive signs during the tail end of 2020 that the sector was on the rebound. Furthermore, the research revealed that energy employers signalled confidence in the upward employment trend continuing in 2021.  

Combining surveys of businesses with public labour data to produce estimates of employment and workforce characteristics, the USEER covers five major energy sectors: electric power generation; transmission, distribution and storage; fuels; energy efficiency; and motor vehicles.

Investments to modernise the US’s grid, fuels infrastructure, buildings and transportation will likely help recoup the job losses from 2020 and return the sector to positive growth rates in 2021, the DOE said in a press release. “Although we are still grappling with the economic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country is turning a corner and a strong energy workforce is critical to our full recovery,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. 

The study found that most solar employment – spanning both PV and concentrated solar power (CSP) – in 2020 was found in construction and installation activities, totalling 123,375 jobs, followed by professional business services with 34,079 workers.

Employment by industry within the US solar generation sector last year. Image: US DOE.

More than half of US solar workers spent most of their time last year working on residential-scale projects, representing a decrease of five percentage points on 2019. The percentage of employees working on non-residential projects nearly doubled from 10% in 2019 to 18%.

According to the USEER, 88% of construction employers engaged in the solar industry reported that that hiring was either somewhat difficult or very difficult last year, while 94% of both solar professional services and manufacturing employers also reported that hiring was somewhat difficult or very difficult.

Despite the dip in solar jobs last year, the US still deployed record amounts of solar, with 16.5GW completed. With the country aiming to have a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035, there must be a fourfold increase in the number of workers employed in the US solar industry, a report co-published by the Solar Energy Industries Association recently suggested. It said there will need to be more than 900,000 workers across the US solar supply chain by 2035.

Martin Shields, professor of economics at Colorado State University, said that although the renewables sector was hit hard by the pandemic, it provides significant potential as an economic driver, adding: “Modernisation of the grid and the installation of new PV and wind capacity will provide thousands of new, high-paying jobs in manufacturing, installation and maintenance across the country.”

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