Solar Jobs - Still an Important Indicator of Industry Success

by Andrea Luecke, Executive Director, The Solar Foundation

September 21, 2012

Mark Twain once declared, “If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're misinformed.” Those of us who follow solar in mainstream media have inevitably encountered both success stories and failures alike.  Unfortunately, the stories of bankruptcies and layoffs have in many ways obscured the terrific achievements and inroads the solar industry has made both recently and over the past couple years.

For all of us in the solar industry, this has been discouraging because the solar industry’s success, particularly as it relates to job creation and growth, is overshadowed by headline failures. In reality, there are a multitude of examples highlighting the continued growth of installation companies and the expansion of several solar manufacturers.  Take for example the announcement by Semprius that it will create at least 250 new jobs when it opens a new solar manufacturing facility in Henderson, NC or the intention of a German solar-panel manufacturing company to expand its operations into Ohio, producing 140 new solar jobs.

While these examples are certainly not headline material and represent only small additions to the solar labor force, they are representative of the larger story. At The Solar Foundation, we have tried to capture this larger story through our National Solar Jobs Census series. Our research last year indicated that the U.S. solar industry employed more than 100,000 Americans, 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 you ask the general public about the solar industry these days, they might very well bring up Solyndra. They do this, not because they are uninformed, but rather, because they are misinformed. Though it may be easy to blame others for this misinformation, we should look instead to how we can change the discourse. Invariably, the argument for solar will have to be won economically, a fight that we are closer and closer to winning. And yet, the way in which we frame the debate over solar energy – that is, how we convey solar energy’s economic success and its benefits – is equally as important. Without data and research to corroborate the growth of the solar industry and its impact in creating high-paying, high-quality jobs for Americans, campaigns and advocacy groups are forced to rely on qualitative (and not quantitative) arguments to help drive the solar market forward. Our chances of winning over the public, as well as legislators, increases dramatically when we are able to define and quantify solar’s benefits to job seekers and the economy as a whole.

Certainly, there are plenty of factors out of our control. As a part of the economy at-large, solar occupations are inexorably affected by market forces, such as industry demand, labor efficiencies, and labor intensities. Lawmakers, however, don’t care about any of that. Most of them just want a number.  For them, an industry’s health is measured in large part by the number of individuals it employs, and this is the basis on which they make many of their decisions. While this may be fundamentally simple, it’s an argument we’ve been able to win in recent years.

This is why it is so important for all solar companies, as well as companies that provide the solar industry with a product or service, to please complete this short for our third annual National Solar Jobs Census by Friday, September 28th. It is imperative that your company and all its locations are counted. It is only through your participation that we will have accurate and comprehensive data to make the case for solar energy and be able to drive the market forward.