As the energy industry stands on the brink of a major transformation from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy, questions arise about the energy jobs of tomorrow: where they will be located? how secure will they be? and how much will they pay?
The issue of an energy industry transition has even made its way into presidential politics. In the last presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden said his policies support “a transition away from the oil industry.” President Trump, whose energy policies have favored expanding traditional forms of energy such as oil, natural gas and coal, at the expense of strict environmental regulations, predicted that Biden’s position would cost him votes in energy-producing states like Pennsylvania and Texas.
Yet most experts, including those in charge of some of the world’s major oil and gas companies, agree that such a transition is inevitable, given that most of the world’s nations have committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The only question is whether the transition will take place over the next several decades or more abruptly, by as early as 2030, as proponents of the Green New Deal advocate.
Trump and like-minded allies, such as the American Petroleum Institute, worry that moving toward less carbon-intensive forms of energy would result in the loss of thousands of high-paying oil and gas jobs. But Biden contends that his plan would result in the creation of many more, and more secure, green energy jobs.
Two recent studies that compare traditional fossil fuel energy jobs with those in the renewable energy industry arrive at slightly different conclusions. Clean Jobs, Better Jobs, released last week by a coalition of clean energy groups, finds that clean energy jobs are more likely to come with better benefits than jobs across the rest of the private sector, and pay as well as or slightly better than fossil fuel jobs.
“The median hourly wages for clean energy jobs overall are about 25 percent higher than the national median wage,” the study found. Compared with jobs in the coal, natural gas and petroleum industries, which pay about $24.37 an hour, jobs in solar and wind pay about $24.85 an hour, while jobs in the energy efficiency—the biggest employer in America’s energy sector—come with median salaries of about $24.44.
In a webinar last week coinciding with the release of the report, representatives of the groups behind the study – E2, American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), Clean Energy Leadership Institute, (CELI) and BW Research Partnership – discussed their findings.
Skilled tradespeople such as electricians, HVAC technicians, mechanics, welders and assemblers can fetch higher wages working on solar arrays and wind turbines than they can in other industries, said Bob Keefe, executive director at E2. “Electricians, if they work in clean energy, they make about $29 bucks an hour. That’s about $2.50 more than in other occupations,” he said.
In addition, clean energy jobs are more likely to be union jobs than jobs across the economy as a whole – 9 percent versus 6 percent – which correlates to higher pay and better benefits, Keefe said.
Meanwhile, a study, which surveyed skilled workers in energy-related construction trades, reported that respondents found “better project variety, trades opportunities, skill development, and project consistency in” oil and gas construction jobs than in corresponding jobs in the clean energy industry.
The report, released in July by North America’s Building Trades Unions, found that the workers surveyed “consider projects in oil and natural gas to have better perceived wages, benefits and opportunities than renewables projects.”
Job security at issue during pandemic
Respondents also reported that the oil and gas industries projects have longer durations than those in renewables industries. Comments from some of the survey respondents, which were included in the report, reflect the workers’ desire for job stability.
“[If I could choose to work in any energy industry, I would choose oil because] it’s the bulk of my experience,” a steamfitter said.
“If fossil fuels [went away], it would definitely impact trades,” a member of the Pipefitters Union said. “A lot of the work would dry up if there wasn’t any gas or any coal or any oil. Solar and wind, they [don’t] use very much pipe.”
The need for a stable and steady job was brought home to many this year as the number of jobs in both the oil and gas and renewable energy industries took a significant hit as a result of the global economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a recent Deloitte report, “The U.S. oil, natural gas and chemicals (OG&C) industry slashed 107,000 jobs from March to August 2020, the fastest rate of layoffs in the industry’s history.” In addition, the industry’s cyclical boom-and-bust nature, which results in extended periods of layoffs, is “challenging the industry’s reputation as a reliable, long-term employer,” the analysts said.
Deloitte also paints a gloomy picture on the prospect of a rapid recovery of jobs in the sector, saying “about 70% of jobs lost during the pandemic may not return by the end of 2021 at $45 per barrel.”
The pandemic-fueled recession hit employment in the clean energy sector as well. “From March 2020 through August 2020, clean energy sector employment levels declined by 14 percent compared to pre-COVID-19 levels—a net loss of nearly 500,000 jobs,” according to the clean energy jobs report.
“Energy efficiency jobs were hit the hardest, with more than 345,000 workers in energy efficiency-related occupations filing for unemployment, as buildings and homes were made off limits due to social distancing and non-essential work orders.”
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, clean energy employment was one of the fastest growing job sectors in the country, accounting for more than 3.4 million workers at the end of last year.
“That’s more Americans than work as real estate agents or school teachers, and three times the amount that work in fossil fuels,” Keefe said.