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Supporting a Real Job Creator – the U.S. Solar Industry

After being bombarded with political ads for the past few months, most of us are relieved we no longer encounter them everywhere we turn. But imagine if you heard one like this:

I’m the candidate who can take credit for adding nearly 14,000 American workers in the past year and supporting an industry that has experienced an astounding 27 percent job growth since 2010. I’m creating highly skilled, domestic jobs that pay well. I’m the U.S. solar industry and I approve this message.

After a grueling and largely negative campaign season, this is the kind of positive message Americans want to hear. And it is backed by fact, not spin.

Today, my organization, The Solar Foundation, released its third annual National Solar Jobs Census, which found that the U.S. solar industry now employs 119,016 Americans. That’s an increase of 13,872 workers and a 13.2 percent employment growth rate over the previous year’s total. That’s a job creation record any candidate would love to run on.

Looking at these results more closely, Census 2012 found that installers led the way in job growth, employing 57,177 Americans as of September 2012 (a 17.5 percent increase over the revised 2011 figure). The installation subsector remains the largest employer in the U.S. solar industry, and continues to provide highly skilled jobs that, by their very nature, cannot be outsourced. The Census also found that much of the installer growth occurred at larger firms. This suggests that the U.S. solar industry is moving into period of consolidation and maturation that will ultimately make the industry more robust and stable.

Additionally, the Census found that the sales and distribution subsector experienced a 23.1 percent increase, now employing 16,005 Americans. Employment in ”other” solar jobs, primarily in research & development and finance, experienced the largest growth rate – 46.1 percent –  bringing the total for this composite category to 8,105 U.S. solar workers.

Unfortunately (though not surprisingly), not all of the findings in Census 2012 tell a happy tale.  As suggested by the failure of a handful of module manufacturers and the high-profile media coverage these closures received, the manufacturing subsector had the weakest showing in Census 2012 – shedding nearly 8,200 jobs over the period we studied.  At 29,742 solar workers, manufacturing still accounts for nearly one-quarter of solar jobs in the U.S., but many of the surviving firms are forced to subsist on razor-thin margins. The difficulties facing this subsector stem from increased global competition in module manufacturing, leading to a decline in component prices. This trend, however, has had a dual effect: putting a damper on job creation upstream, but feeding a boom in installation – and therefore jobs – downstream. In fact, employment gains in the installation sector were enough to single-handedly offset the job losses in manufacturing.

Equally notable is that nearly 50 percent of the more than 1,000 companies surveyed for the Census expressed great optimism for future solar employment growth. Overall, respondents reported that they anticipate 17.2 percent employment growth over the next 12 months, representing an addition of 20,000 new solar workers. If the past is any indication, these growth numbers may be overestimates. However, they are a good predictor that the solar industry will remain on its upward growth trajectory.

A campaign is not a campaign without an opponent and some negative ads. Opponents of clean, renewable energy – chiefly those seeking to protect their market share – would likely try to claim that green jobs are a myth. Unfortunately for them, the facts support solar.

The National Solar Jobs Census 2012 measured employment growth in the solar industry between August 2011 and September 2012. While solar jobs grew by 13.2 percent during this period, employment in the overall economy grew at a rate of only 2.3 percent (BLS) and the fossil fuel electric generation industry actually lost jobs – shedding 3,857 workers, or 3.77 percent, of its workforce (EMSI).

This impressive job growth, combined with a 92 percent voter approval rating, make solar the kind of candidate we can all support. This includes the President as he begins his second term, and the new Congress as it members take office.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Lead image: solar panel with ratchet wrench via shutterstock.

Are Solar Jobs in the U.S. Rising or Declining?

Too often, encouraging stories about our economy are replaced by disheartening stories of bankruptcies and layoffs. These types of front-page features discourage companies and job seekers alike. Although unemployment rates are still in the double digits in some states, the solar industry has been a strong and growing segment of our national economy.

While not front-page headlines, there are countless examples of solar industry growth and job creation throughout the U.S. As might be expected from continued record growth in installed solar capacity, most installation companies have been successful in growing their businesses, and a handful of solar manufacturers have continued to grow and expand as well. Most recently, Semprius announced that it is opening a new solar manufacturing facility in Henderson, NC that will create at least 250 new jobs, and a German solar-panel manufacturing company, Solarzentrum, announced plans to expand into Ohio and create 140 new solar jobs. While these examples demonstrate small additions to the solar labor force, they are worth noting.

According to our research, the U.S. solar industry employed more than 100,000 Americans in 2011, a figure that represents a 6.8% increase in employment from 2010. This means that the solar industry created jobs at a rate nearly ten times faster than the overall economy.  Although the solar industry stems from a small base, its growth indicates that solar is likely to be a winning proposition for lawmakers.  But the question is: can we expect this kind of growth in 2012?  

If Solyndra taught us anything, it is that we can’t take anything for granted. It taught us that despite the incredible growth the U.S. solar industry has experienced over the last several years, we cannot rest on our laurels. It taught us that we must continue to fight to provide lawmakers with credible data that proves that the solar industry is diverse and has a significant impact on the economy. Making the case for solar depends on our ability to define this “impact.” Without research – more specifically, without data – campaigns and advocacy groups will not have ample intellectual justification to drive the solar market forward, and solar companies will remain unaware of industry-wide trends that may affect them down the road.

Jobs are an indicator of industry demand, but they are also affected by labor efficiencies and labor intensities. To a lawmaker, it is much simpler.  Job counts directly represent the health of a company. Often it is the only indicator they care about when making decisions. This is why I implore all solar companies and companies that provide the solar industry with a product or service to please complete this short survey for our National Solar Jobs Census 2012 by Friday, September 28th and make sure your company and all its locations get counted. Only through your participation will we know how the industry is faring and be able to take appropriate action.

Lead image: Rate your response via shutterstock.