A Hiring Bright Spot: Solar Energy Jobs

Over the next 12 months, almost 50 percent of solar firms expect to add jobs.

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In an economy plagued by high unemployment and slow growth, one young industry has an optimistic outlook.

Over the next 12 months, nearly 50 percent of 2,100 solar firms surveyed say they expect to add jobs, while less than 3 percent plan job cuts, according to the National Solar Jobs Census 2011, issued by The Solar Foundation. "The solar industry is not only an economic powerhouse, but it's also a tremendous jobs creator," says Andrea Luecke, executive director of The Solar Foundation.

As consumers become more educated about solar energy and costs continue to fall, job growth within the industry is expected to come from a variety of subsectors and occupations. Installation firms, for example, expect to add a little over 13,000 jobs next year, and manufacturing firms expect to add almost 3,500 job over the same time period. In addition, sales and distribution firms expect to create more than 6,000 jobs.

[See The 50 Best Careers for 2011.]

As of the end of August, there were just over 100,000 U.S. solar industry employees—workers who spend at least 50 percent of their time supporting solar-related activities. That's up almost 7 percent from August 2010, and double the number of solar jobs in 2009. (To put that number in perspective, the growth rate for solar jobs was almost 10 times higher than the national average employment growth rate of 0.7 percent.) Compare that to the fossil fuel industry, which experienced negative growth of 2 percent over the same time period. The Solar Foundation expects the number of solar jobs to grow by about 24 percent, or about 24,000 new jobs, by August 2012.

One residential installation company, Oakland, Calif.-based Sungevity, has almost tripled its workforce, from 100 employees in August 2010 to close to 300 employees in August 2011. It plans to expand into new markets in Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey as the demand for residential solar continues to grow.

[See Job Outlook Improving for the Class of 2012.]

Sales, distribution, and training company Ontility, based in Houston, has doubled its staff from 35 employees to 77 over the past year, and has plans to hire more. Janet Hughes, executive vice president at Ontility, says the company is hiring because there is growing demand for solar training for workers in a number of different industries. "We do everything from entry-level to advanced solar training for electricians and roofers and builders and different kinds of construction folks who are getting into the industry," Hughes says. She says the company has plans to open warehouses on both the East and West coasts.

Still, there are a number of growth barriers for the industry. In the survey, general economic conditions (32 percent), lack of state incentives (21 percent), and overall lack of awareness by consumers (18 percent) ranked highest among employers' concerns. Of those surveyed, 5 percent complained that they were having trouble finding qualified applicants. Luecke says the vast majority of jobs in this field tend to be high-skilled occupations, and employers in the industry tend to be extremely selective.

[See Despite High Unemployment, Millions of Job Openings.]

"Employers are saying, 'Look, we received plenty of applications. That's not the problem. We have more applicants than we can handle. It's just that they're not skilled enough,'" Luecke says. "The message here is that to get a job, you need to be experienced, you need to be able to hit the ground running."

Twitter: @benbaden