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Rising Solar Job Numbers Lead to Shortage of Skilled Workers

By Lita Reyes
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The number of jobs in the U.S. solar industry rose 20 percent-plus for the third straight year, with about 209,000 people now employed. But the growing popularity of solar energy means businesses that supply panels and other components are having a tough time finding skilled workers to install them.

Several milestones last year energized the industry, including President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the Paris climate agreement and the extension of the solar investment tax credit by the federal government at the end of last year.

So what does this mean for businesses buying clean power? So far, not much, because most solar employment is for residential installations, according to a report by the Washington-based nonprofit the Solar Foundation. That translates into 63 percent of solar employment being in the residential sector and 15 percent in the commercial sector, with another 22 percent in utilities. But that is likely to change soon.

"I think we’ll reach a saturation point with residential," Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation, told GreenBiz. The foundation noted that one in five employers are struggling to find solar talent.

Think tanks and other groups have pointed to a green jobs gap in clean technologies, with jobs going mainly to white men. One solution: diversify the workforce, including adding women, who account for only 21 percent of installers, Latinos 13 percent and African Americans 5 percent.

209,000 and counting: The solar job boom by the numbers

Lauren Hepler | GreenBiz | January 12, 2016

The U.S. solar industry now employs some 209,000 people, following a third consecutive year of 20 percent-plus job gains, according to a census of workers in the clean energy sector released today.

Washington-based nonprofit the Solar Foundation reports (PDF) that jobs in solar grew at 12 times the pace of the overall economy from November 2014 to November 2015, and that the industry is poised to add upwards of 30,000 more jobs in the next 12 months. The Solar Foundation report is based on survey data from 19,000 companies and counts only workers who spend 50 percent or more of their time on work related to solar energy.

The strong numbers come in the wake of several recent policy milestones — most notably President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, the accord at the United Nations COP21 Paris climate talks in December and the extension of the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) at the end of 2015 — all of which clean energy advocates point to as evidence of acceleration in an inevitable shift toward low-carbon energy.

"Very few other industries can tout this kind of growth," Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation, told GreenBiz. "On the other hand, the traditional fossil fuel-oriented energy generation sectors are sort of falling off the map."

While solar provider share prices and YieldCos have not performed well in the face of low oil prices over the last year, growth in coal, oil and gas employment also has slowed.

"The U.S. solar installation sector employs 77 percent more than the domestic coal mining industry," the report notes.

Here's a rundown of the data and what it might foretell about the future of the solar industry. The big questions: How will corporate clean energy buyers fit in, how much will new solar jobs pay, and who ultimately will benefit from the clean energy job boom?

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