Solar Power International: Some Welcome News On Solar-Sector Jobs


‘Jobs, jobs, jobs’ is likely a recurring theme at almost any industry trade conference these days. Fortunately, the solar employment sector has long served as an encouraging exception to the general trend of job cuts and non-expansion that pervades the U.S. workforce.

A new study reveals that as of August 2011, an estimated 100,237 people across the U.S. are classified as ‘solar workers’ – a 6.8% increase since August 2010. This good news arrives courtesy of The Solar Foundation (TSF) , which unveiled its long-awaited National Solar Jobs Census 2011 at the Solar Power International conference currently under way in Dallas.

According to TSF, this job growth is not expected to slow down anytime soon. Almost half of the solar firms surveyed said they expect to add employees over the next year, which would create 24,000 more solar jobs.

Criticism of ‘green jobs’ and the federal incentives that are, in some cases, linked to their creation is rampant. Some renewable-energy detractors have even called into question the methodologies used to calculate employment totals and job-creation projections.

But TSF and its research partners – which include BW Research Partnership's Green LMI Division, Cornell University and others – point out that the National Solar Jobs Census' information comes straight from the source.

‘Unlike economic impact models that generate employment estimates based on
revenue and other economic data and rely on jobs-per-dollar (or jobs-per-megawatt)
assumptions, this report provides statistically valid and current data gathered
directly from employers,’ the organization writes in the report. ‘The primary data
contained in this report are drawn from a mixed-method survey using direct contact
with individuals.’

Why has the solar market continued to be a job creator when other industries have stumbled? Of course, the overall acceleration of PV, solar thermal and concentrating solar power project development in the U.S. in recent years has been a major boon for solar employment.

Survey respondents also cited several specific positive factors that are enabling them to expand their companies: A total of 32.5% of companies said the extension of federal tax incentives contributed to their growth.

The creation of state and local incentive programs, increased consumer awareness of solar products and services, improvement in the overall economy and the development of renewable portfolio standards also helped, employers told TSF.

The study broke down its job analysis by solar subsector: installation, manufacturing, sales and distribution, and ‘other’ jobs. Of the four industry branches, the solar sales and distribution segment is expected to enjoy the strongest growth from 2011 to 2012: a whopping 35%.

Currently, the installation segment provides, by far, the most solar jobs: 65,571. More than half of solar-sector employees – 52.4% – work at solar installation firms. A total of 24,064 people are employed in the solar manufacturing segment, while 17,722 are involved in sales and distribution and 5,948 hold ‘other’ solar jobs, according to the report.

The solar installation subsector, in particular, is undergoing an important evolution as the industry matures, TSF notes.

‘More firms appear to be contracting out portions of their solar work, including administrative, on-site installation and other parts of the installation process,’ the report explains. ‘As a result, there appears to be greater efficiency in the installation process, with more highly refined specific occupational areas and fewer workers who are expected to conduct multiple installation activities (such as assessment, customer service and rooftop installation).’

Despite a few high-profile factory closures and solar manufacturer bankruptcies this year, the solar manufacturing sector is strong and growing.

‘Solar manufacturing companies anticipate adding 3,473 solar workers over the next 12
months, a 14.4 percent growth rate,’ the report says. ‘This compares to an expected nationwide 2.6 percent decline in overall manufacturing for the same period.’

Finally, in order to maintain these positive growth trends, TSF says the industry must fight to ensure ‘stable and consistent’ incentives and renewable energy goals and mandates – especially incentives that encourage the adoption of solar power by consumers and businesses.

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