As the U.S. economy sluggishly continues to rebound from a painful recession, the solar industry has shown once again that it is a beacon of light when it comes to boosting the number jobs in the nation. But as the solar industry shines brightly for new hires, concerns loom that layoffs could be on the horizon.
U.S. companies increased the number of solar jobs in 2014 by 21.8 percent over 2013 — which equates to 173,807 people working in the greentech sector, according to today’s release of The Solar Foundation’s national employment census report. This is the fifth year that the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit has been tracking job figures.
The census numbers capture an industry that is adding workers at a rate almost 20 times faster than the overall economy, according to the report.
“Our census findings show that one out of every 78 new jobs created in the U.S. over the past 12 months was created by the solar industry,” Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of The Solar Foundation, explained in an interview.
According to the foundation, the installation sector — which is the largest segment of the solar industry — led in terms of adding jobs. The sector saw a 39 percent increase over the previous year, employing 97,031 people at the end of 2014. The industry’s project-development sector also saw a substantial uptick: That sector’s 24 percent increase in jobs brings its employment total to 15,112 people.
Manufacturing jobs grew by almost 9 percent during this time to 32,490, and jobs in the industry’s sales and distribution grew by 2 percent to reach 20,185.
It’s only fitting that the solar industry as a whole saw an impressive number of jobs added last year. After revealing third-quarter data analysis on U.S. installed solar capacity, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) predicted in early December that the industry would finish the year with record-breaking amounts of renewable energy coming online. The SEIA has yet to publish its overview of the year.
Among the factors driving solar adoption, and therefore jobs, are solar’s continued price decline and supportive policies like net metering and tax credits, according to Luecke.
But not all of the solar industry experienced job growth last year. The sector that The Solar Foundation classifies as “other” — which includes government institutions, training organizations, research and development shops and boutique services — saw jobs drop by 20 percent to finish out 2014 with 8,989 people in its workforce.
“‘Other’ dipped because there was a drop in public and private sector early-stage investments. So research and development money is down,” Luecke explained. Additional contributing factors include big companies bringing sophisticated legal, finance and marketing capabilities in-house, she said. Luecke expects the latter trend to continue.
Getting more diverse, but lots of room for improvement
As the overall industry grows, Luecke says solar’s workforce is also becoming more diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender.
Demographic groups saw light gains in employment during 2014. Latinos comprised 16.3 percent of the workforce, compared to 15.6 percent in the previous year. Asians or Pacific Islanders represented 7 percent of the work force, up from 6.7 percent the year before. African-Americans only saw a 0.1 percent uptick difference to make up 6 percent of last year’s solar workforce.
The Solar Foundation found that more women work in the solar industry than ever before. Women accounted for more than 37,500 solar workers, or almost 22 percent of the 2014 workforce. During the previous year, 26,700 women worked in solar, making up almost 19 percent of the industry.
Movement has been afoot to help bring more women into solar. Last year, multiple efforts took root to improve the gender balance in the industry as we have extensively covered on SolarEnergy.net.
That said, “women are still far underrepresented in the solar industry as compared to the overall economy,” Luecke said. Women comprise almost half the total of the U.S. workforce.
But when compared to other industries, such as construction or oil and gas extraction, the solar industry leads when it comes to both gender and ethnic diversity, Luecke said. “The solar industry is trending in the right direction,” she said.
Where further solar jobs growth will happen
When forecasting solar job numbers, Luecke said The Solar Foundation expects 2015 to be another strong year. The foundation estimates that when compared to last year, the solar industry will see a 20.9 percent increase to 210,060 in jobs, which means more than 36,250 workers will joining the industry.
Luecke said she expects the sales and distribution sector to pick up the biggest percentage of job gains this year. The foundation anticipates a 26 percent jump in jobs to a new total of 25,480 people employed. Companies in this sector either serve as a go-between for manufacturers and installers, or provide some sort of financial service to installer companies. Financial services in solar has increasingly garnered attention as companies angle to become more competitive and innovate in their product offerings.
The chart below lists The Solar Foundation’s complete projections for 2015.
How long will growth last?
Luecke also says it’s possible that solar industry job growth will continue through 2016, but things become murky after that. Uncertainty looms over whether the federal government will renew the 30 percent solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which is slated to expire at the end of 2016. This means the ITC could reduce to 10 percent for commercial projects, and vanish for homeowners who install and own their solar systems.
“Three-quarters of all the companies that we surveyed said the tax credit was very, very important, and has helped their business significantly,” Luecke said. Should the ITC fail to be renewed, the installation sector, which employs more than half the solar industry, would be hardest hit. Almost 62 percent of companies in the sector expect to cut jobs should this happen, according to research by The Solar Foundation.