In his first hour as president, Donald Trump promised to resurrect middle-class manufacturing jobs in the United States. It will be all but impossible for him to reverse the tides of globalization and automation, but the future may nonetheless be bright for the American worker, thanks to a trend that predates and will outlast the 45th president.
For the last decade, the solar industry has enjoyed exponential job growth. Last year, more than 51,000 people in the United States were hired to design, manufacture, sell and install solar panels, according to a new report from The Solar Foundation. That means the solar industry created jobs 17 times faster than the economy as a whole.
“In 2016, we saw a dramatic increase in the solar workforce across the nation, thanks to a rapid decrease in the cost of solar panels and unprecedented consumer demand for solar installations,” said Andrea Luecke, The Solar Foundation’s president and executive director.
Falling prices for panels are helping drive a nationwide clean-energy boom. Utility-scale solar is now cost-competitive with wind and natural gas — and it’s cheaper than coal, even without subsidies. Last year, solar accounted for more than a third of new U.S. generating capacity.
The solar industry now employs twice as many people in the United States as the coal industry and roughly the same number of people as the natural gas industry. While solar still accounts for a much far smaller share of U.S. power generation than either of those fossil fuel sources, it’s expanding rapidly, putting a growing number of Americans to work. While the official numbers have not been tallied, early estimates have found that more solar was added to the grid in 2016 than natural gas capacity.
Roughly half of the men and women working in the solar industry are installers, who earn a median wage of $26 an hour in a job that can’t be outsourced. In addition, these positions don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
The burgeoning workforce also includes people working in sales and project development, jobs that call for an education in engineering or business.
The report notes that the solar workforce is growing more diverse, employing a larger share of women and people of color, as well as a significant number of military veterans. Last year, solar companies created jobs in nearly every state.
“It’s really a wide range of people that get hired into this industry — everybody from certified and licensed engineers to those who first learned about a solar project when we were building one in their area,” said George Hershman, the general manager of Swinerton Renewable Energy. “A great aspect of this business is that it isn’t an exclusionary trade. It’s a teachable job that can create opportunity for people and give them a skill.”
While jobs are cropping up all across the country, growth is more closely linked to policy support for renewable energy than to the number of sunny days in a given locale. Last year, Massachusetts added more solar jobs than Texas, despite enjoying less sunshine. The Bay State has ambitious plans to build out zero-carbon power sources like wind and solar.
“Solar is an important part of our ever-expanding clean energy economy in Massachusetts, supporting thousands of high-skilled careers across the Commonwealth,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said.
Smart policy is key to the continued growth of the solar industry, which has been bolstered by federal tax credits and state renewable-energy mandates, among other measures. President Trump plans to roll back federal policies that foster the growth of clean energy, potentially scrap the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and eliminate funding for clean-energy research and development.
Without these policies, solar will continue to grow, but at an attenuated pace. Corporations like General Motors, Apple and IKEA will keep buying up solar power to cut costs and guard against volatility in the price of fossil fuels. But electric utilities will be less incentivized to shutter existing coal-fired power plants in favor of new renewable energy installations.
Solar evangelists say that if Donald Trump wants to create well-paid jobs that don’t require a college education, he should foster the growth of solar rather than pursuing deals, one-by-one, to prevent U.S. manufacturers from shipping jobs overseas.
Last year, solar companies created more than 60 jobs for every one job Donald Trump and Mike Pence preserved by giving a tax break to Carrier. Ultimately, the jobs saved at the Carrier plant may be lost to machines. Meanwhile, jobs in solar are destined to keep growing.