Energy workforce report: Wages higher than other sectors, retraining imperative

Photo courtesy Service Power

The energy industry pays better, is recovering from COVID-19 faster and will experience more change in coming decades than most or all other workforce sectors.

These general themes permeated a new supplemental report on U.S. energy and employment delivered Tuesday by The National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO), Energy Futures Initiative and the BW Research Partnership. These findings focused on workforce wages, benefits and transitions in the energy sector.

“This is an acceleration in change in the energy sector we haven’t seen before,” said former Obama-era Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz at the outset of the virtual presentation. “The energy workforce represents more than five percent of the overall workforce and grew at twice the pace” in recent years. “We’re building back better in a post COVID world.”

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Moniz’s evocation of the Biden Administration mantra on infrastructure investment resonates in the energy world. The transition will take retraining, retrenchment and a renewed focus on preparing a new workforce for a new power generation paradigm.

“Wages, Benefits and Change: A Supplemental report to the 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report” finds several encouraging trends for the power sector workforce and energy in general. For instance, the U.S. energy workforce grew by 11 percent from 2015-2019, adding 915,000 jobs, mostly in natural gas, wind and solar sectors.

The economic collapse brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic cut 12 percent of those jobs at the peak of losses in April 2020, but even that was far below the 20-percent decline in nationwide workforce statistics. More than 300,000 energy jobs were added back from June to December 2020.

Energy jobs provide a higher median wage in comparison to the nationwide $19.14 per hour average, according to the report delivered by NASEO, Energy Futures Initiative and BW Research Partnership. Nuclear sector workers are paid a median $39.19 per hour, while T&D and natural gas sector workers also average $30 or above, the report shows.

More than 2.37 million workers are employed in energy efficiency jobs, more than any other sector in the energy industry crosscut. Those energy efficiency workers make a median of close to $24.44 an hour, according to the report.

“If we can get the training and connection and integration right, those folks can stand to see wages double,” Phil Jordan, vice president of BW Research Partnership, said on the potential for people joining the energy workforce in the future. “That’s where I see a tremendous amount of promise.”

Jordan touted strong upside for construction workers on the energy storage side of things. That subsector boasted more than $25 per hour in median wages, according to the report.

The industry needs to develop registered apprenticeship programs and other training mechanism for developing this growing energy sector around storage and renewables. And it also needs some leadership on the governmental level to help make that happen, he added.

“We’re going to have think directly about more workforce funding prioritized by policy makers and programming to support development and expansion of pipelines to gainful energy careers,” Jordan said.

NASEO also hosted a panel of state energy experts from New York, Colorado, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. They talked about their state’s respective energy transitions, where most utilities are charting paths to low or zero carbon by 2050 or earlier.

“What we are seeing is an enormous energy transition happening,” said Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office. He noted that utilities in the state, which include Xcel Energy and Rocky Mountain Power, are moving toward retiring every coal-fired plant.

“The coal retirements are stretched out over time, so I think we’ll see very few layoffs,” Toor said, noting that utilities were going to retrain and transition those coal-fired plant workers toward jobs elsewhere in the company. “A federal strategy is needed for energy work transition.”

Doreen Harris, President and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), pointed out that her state was investing $20 million in training for new offshore wind power careers.

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