Market Insights

A Dirty Business: Energy Workforce Trends

September 07, 2023 by Shannon Cuthrell

In tracking 300 million job changes from the fossil fuel sector to clean energy, research sheds light on the workforce impacts of the U.S.’s energy transition.

New research from Wake Forest University in North Carolina gauges the impact of the renewable energy transition on the United States workforce. The researchers analyzed data of 130 million workers making 300 million job transitions, using job titles, industries, and company names. 


A Tesla manufacturing operation.

A Tesla manufacturing operation. Image used courtesy of Tesla

Wind, solar, renewables, and electric vehicle manufacturing are the biggest subcategories of “green” jobs covered in the study, while “dirty” jobs refer to fossil fuel sectors. One of the major takeaways is that dirty-to-green transitions are quite rare as a share of all transitions from dirty jobs. Still, the rate of successful transition has grown from less than 0.1% in the early 2000s to nearly 0.7% by 2021. 


Dirty-to-green transition probability by job category

Dirty-to-green transition probability by job category. Image used courtesy of the National Bureau of Economic Research (Page 21, Figure 2)

The paper was published in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Environmental and Energy Policy and the Economy publication. 


Clean Energy Workforce Trends

The number of workers moving from dirty to green jobs has grown about tenfold from 2005 to 2021, charting a significant rise in EV-related employment in the later years of that timescale as America’s clean energy transition expanded. Younger workers are more likely to switch, as around one-fourth of green jobs are occupied by first-time workers. 

Still, workers in dirty jobs are far more likely to stay in their sector, though the data varies geographically. Since 2020, only about 1% of all workers leaving dirty jobs have moved to clean energy jobs in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Iowa. On a city level, dirty-to-dirty jobs account for nearly two-thirds of transitions in Oklahoma City, Denver, and Wilmington in Delaware. 


Percent of workers leaving their company to join another employer over time.

Percent of workers leaving their company to join another employer over time. Image used courtesy of the National Bureau of Economic Research (Page 20, Figure 1)


EV and manufacturing jobs are a key opportunity hub for dirty job workers. Half of dirty-to-green job transitions in 2021 were in the EV and EV battery industries. More than one-fourth of people leaving dirty jobs went into manufacturing. 


Clean Transition by Age and Education 

The study found that age and education attainment significantly influence transition trends. Mark Curtis, a Wake Forest University associate professor and an author of the paper, stated workers without a college degree and older workers are much more likely to remain in carbon-intensive jobs. Local labor markets also might not be equipped to absorb workers displaced by the growing clean energy economy. 

More specifically, workers with doctoral degrees are around 44% more likely to successfully switch from a carbon-intensive job to a green one than workers with a high school education. However, they’re only 4% more likely than those with associate degrees. 

Manufacturing topped the list of receiving industries from dirty jobs among both college graduates (289,329 transitions or 29.5%) and those with less than a college degree (141,180 or 24.5%). Among college grads, the second-highest industry is professionals, science, and tech services (13.2%), followed by oil/gas extraction and mining (7.7%). 

Age is another critical factor. Compared to workers aged 25 to 34, older workers between 55 and 64 are around 38% less likely to make the transition, and those above 65 are 60% less likely. But younger workers are more likely to change jobs anyway. Between 2020 and 2022, 30 times as many 25- to 34-year-olds transitioned to green jobs as those in the 55-64 range. 

Among clean energy occupations, managerial roles are most likely to make the switch. The leading green-entering professions are similar across sectors, albeit in a different order. For solar, wind, and renewables, sales managers, chief executives, general and operations managers, marketing managers, and other managerial roles topped the list. Technical jobs dominated the EV category, led by industrial engineers, software developers, mechanical engineers, and general/operations managers. 


Other Clean Energy Job Insights

The study’s findings come as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently released its 2023 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, tracking a 3.9% rise in clean energy jobs from 2021 to 2022. This outpaced overall U.S. employment, which rose 3.1% in the same period. Clean energy claimed over 40% of all energy jobs last year. 


Employment growth by technology as of 2022.

Employment growth by technology as of 2022. Image used courtesy of DOE (Page 9)


The motor vehicle workforce grew 13% since 2020, reaching 2.6 million jobs in late 2022. Energy efficiency was a close second at 2.2 million, up 7.4%, followed by fuels (1 million), transmission, distribution, and storage (1.4 million), and electric power generation (over nearly 900,000). 

Overall energy employment rose across 95% of counties between 2021 and 2022. Energy efficiency and motor vehicle jobs are widely distributed geographically, though solar jobs grew in more counties than any other electric power generation technology. Clean energy job growth was especially high in California, Texas, and New York.