Relatively Minor Retraining Investment Could Transition All Coal Workers To Solar Jobs

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Coal may be on its way out, thanks in part to the fracking and natural gas energy trends, and coal jobs are declining as well, due to increasing mechanization, but the imminent death knell of coal employment doesn’t have to be a complete job-apocalypse, as a recent study suggests.

solar-arrayWhile it may be some years before we see the coal industry completely collapse, the decline in coal production and consumption is happening right now (as is the bankruptcy of the world’s largest coal company), so perhaps it’s time to consider how to transition coal industry employees into sustainable jobs.

As it turns out, some of the heavy lifting of that transition question has already been done, as a pair of researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) and Michigan Technological University (MTU) recently published their findings on a study on this exact topic, titled “Retraining Investment for U.S. Transition from Coal to Solar Photovoltaic Employment.

Joshua M. Pearce, of MTU, and Edward P. Louie, of OSU, put together a detailed study that looked at the estimated costs and benefits of retraining workers in the coal industry for employment in the booming solar PV industry, as well as the different methods that could be used to pay for this retraining. And the costs for retraining the majority of coal employees as solar workers, while still significant in everyday economic terms, aren’t nearly as large as one would think, with estimates ranging from a best-case scenario of $180 million to a worst-case scenario of $1.87 billion.

According to the study, some 150,000 people are currently working in coal-related jobs, either directly for a coal company or working in a coal-fired power plant, which is less than the current estimated 209,000 solar jobs. And with the solar industry hiring at a rate about 12 times faster than the overall economy, it’s clear that solar is already the up-and-comer and coal is on its way out, at least in terms of employment numbers. Those coal jobs, as dirty as they are, are still paying careers that people take on to cover their bills, feed their families, and pay their mortgages with, and if (when) coal job cuts come, those people will need new careers — and not just any careers, but ones with similar or higher pay and benefits.

The study, which used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, examined all current positions in the coal industry, from office workers to engineers and miners, and determined the required skill sets for each job, as well as the average salaries for those workers. Then, an equivalent solar job position and salary was identified for those jobs, with some coming with a salary increase of 10% or more, while other job transitions may be ‘flat’ as far as salaries are concerned, and some, notably executive and administrative positions, seeing a pay reduction. Some coal workers would need more training than others to take a solar position, with more advanced positions, such as solar engineering, requiring extensive training — including a university degree — while others would only entail on-the-job training or a shorter period of education.

“Our results show that there is a wide variety of employment opportunities in the solar industry, and that the annual pay is attractive at all levels of education, with even the lowest skilled jobs paying a living wage (e.g., janitors in the coal industry could increase their salaries by 7% by becoming low-skilled mechanical assemblers in the solar industry). In general, we found that after retraining, technical workers would make more in the solar industry than previously in coal.” – Joshua M. Pearce

In addition to quantifying the costs and benefits of a coal-to-solar job transition, the study looked at four possible methods of paying for the retraining programs, including the workers paying for their own training, coal companies paying for retraining of workers before layoffs, state-led coal-to-solar workforce retraining programs, and the US government funding the retraining programs.

The study, which also includes appendices that indicate which solar jobs have the most potential for which current coal jobs (and the required training for transitioning to the solar job), concludes that the retraining investment would be relatively minor:

“Even if completely subsidized by the federal government these figures (ranging from $180 million to $1.87 billion) would be only amount to 0.0052% and 0.0543% of the U.S. federal budget, respectfully. Coal to PV transition retraining could be implemented as: i) scholarships, education vouchers and grants for coal employees to universities, colleges, community colleges and certification programs, ii) subsidized expansion of solar industry training such as the workshops and on-line classes, iii) government-sponsored free courses and certificates for PV positions, and iv) no, low-interest or subsidized loans for education and retraining.”

The entire study is available online (PDF).

Image: David Goehring via Flickr under CC2.0 license

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Derek Markham

Derek lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, fungi, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves fresh roasted chiles, peanut butter on everything, and buckets of coffee.

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