Beyond the headline numbers, the report highlights the diversity of sectors, activities, and skill levels associated with clean energy, and points to workforce education needs.
By David L. Levy
The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center released the 2011 Massachusetts Clean Energy Industry Report this month, just a few weeks after the failures of solar firms Solyndra and Evergreen triggered a fierce debate about the prospects for green jobs in the US and the wisdom of government investment in clean energy. The answer to this $64,000 question is 64,000 clean energy jobs in Massachusetts in 4,909 clean energy companies. While the precise jobs number depends on assumptions about definitions and the methodology used, this figure represents a 6.7% increase from July 2010 to July 2011, a period of stagnancy in the national employment situation (and employment growth in Massachusetts was a meager 1%). Moreover, respondents to the survey used for this study were optimistic about future growth, expecting employment to grow by 15.2% by July 2012. About 40% of employers expect to take on more clean energy workers in the coming year, while only 2% expect fewer.
One way to put these numbers in perspective is to compare them to the first effort to measure the clean energy sector in Massachusetts, in which I was a participant. Back in 2004, we arrived at the figure of 11,000 people in approximately 400 firms, and predicted that the sector could reach 20,000 employees by 2010 “if Massachusetts remains at the forefront in terms of both policy and technology in clean energy development”. Despite the deep recession, the clean energy sector has far exceeded these expectations. One thing that has not changed, however, is the political sensitivity of these numbers. Just last week, former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney called the promise of green jobs “illusory”. Back in 2004, our report was not published for several years, apparently because of pressure from local business associations who were worried that the numbers might lead to carbon regulation.
In 2004, we identified an incipient clean energy cluster in the state, comprising not just clean energy firms, but geographically concentrated networks of related businesses, such as specialized suppliers, consulting and professional services, and venture capital firms, and other organizations, including industry associations, universities, research centers and supportive government agencies. Clusters are characterized by a concentration of sector-specific skills and a rich network of connections among people and organizations. In the case of Massachusetts, these skills draw from the advanced electronics, IT, and specialized manufacturing sectors in the region. We observed, for example, that a significant number of ex-employees of Polaroid had brought their thin-film engineering expertise to bear in solar and fuel cell technologies. We also noted that the state has substantial expertise in power electronics, which comprises at least 25% of the renewable energy value chains. A hidden asset in the state is a strong network of clean energy enthusiasts spanning business, government and academia that lends coherence and a sense of mission to the cluster.
Aside from the headline numbers, the report highlights the diversity of sectors, activities, and skill levels associated with clean energy. This makes an accurate count difficult, but highlights the many ways that clean energy is affecting the economy and the broad range of job market opportunities being created. Relatively few of these jobs are in manufacturing, while the vast majority are in sales, distribution, and installation, positions which are location-specific and immune to outsourcing. A substantial number are in highly skilled research and development, which are also likely to be geographically “sticky”.
The 2011 study defined a clean energy firm “as an employer engaged in whole, or in part, in providing goods and services related to renewable energy, energy efficiency, alternative transportation, and carbon management.” Similarly, clean energy workers are defined as “employees which spend at least a portion of their time supporting the clean energy aspects of their businesses”. The study burrowed deep into organizations to reveal clean energy-related activities that earlier reports have missed. While more than half the firms in the study derive at least 50% of their revenues from clean energy products and services, more than one-third of the organizations got less than 25% of their revenues from clean energy. About half the organizations contacted had 5 or fewer clean energy employees. This reflects a large number of small companies in the region, but also a lot of businesses and organizations that would not usually identify themselves with the clean energy sector, but have a few employees working on, for example, energy efficiency or clean energy research.
While solar is by far the largest technology focus of the renewable energy companies, there is a broad range of other technologies in the cluster. Since 2004, biofuels, geothermal, and hydropower have become more prominent, while fuel cell activity has declined, in relative terms. Among energy efficiency firms, the largest number are in HVAC and building controls, but smart grid and demand response have been growing recently.
Back in 2004, we noted that Massachusetts had great potential in power electronics, the hardware and software needed for energy measurement, management, storage, connection, control, and conversion. Aside from a few pure plays, like Beacon Power, it’s still unclear from this report how many companies are active in this part of the clean energy value chain. Some are probably captured in the energy storage, smart grid, and demand response categories under energy efficiency, but there could be more activity here as well as unrecognized potential. The report does mention some of the university community – it reports 326 researchers in the University of Massachusetts system (not including Dartmouth), and even 37 on my own campus, UMass-Boston.
The regional cluster contains a growing number of professional service firms, such as law, accountancy, finance, and consulting companies with staff devoted to clean energy related issues. The region is also home to a large environmental NGO community as well as numerous government agency employees working in the field. The report does not explicitly discuss these workers or organizations. Yet, combined with the administrative, professional, and managerial employees at the firms included in the report, this is an important group of jobs that many surveys have neglected.
The study notes that the clean energy sector demands advanced expertise and education, and that about 60% of firms report great or some difficulty in recruiting workers with adequate experience and technical skills. But employers are not necessarily looking for clean energy experts. Echoing what I’ve been hearing elsewhere, they want people who are highly skilled in their primary field, whether that’s sales, installation, engineering, or accounting, and with some knowledge of (and passion for!) clean energy. Which brings me to a shameless plug – our clean energy education programs at UMass-Boston, including certificates in Clean Energy and Sustainability and an MBA track in Environmental Management, are designed specifically to serve professionals who are strong in their primary field, and want to deepen their clean energy expertise.