After many years of depending on fossil-fuel-driven energy, the U.S. has recently begun to embrace clean-energy alternatives. The Biden administration has pledged to make clean energy one of its top priorities and create 10 million new jobs, both to boost post-pandemic employment and to make a sizable impact on climate change.
Here in New York, that comes as good economic news. The state ranks fourth in the nation in clean energy jobs (through 2019), according to research released by the nonpartisan business group E2. Westchester County is helping lead the way, with new companies popping up like spring tulips. And they need workers.
Which is even better news for those looking for a fruitful career without the benefit of an advanced education. Soulful Synergy, a local consulting company that focuses on sustainability and workforce development, especially in underserved communities, offers, among other things, certification training programs and employment placement assistance in the energy efficiency sector. “Almost two-thirds of our participants don’t have college degrees,” says Dwayne R. Norris, co-founder of Soulful Synergy. “This is an industry you can find a home in.”
That home pays well. The E2 report mined data from the U.S. Labor and Energy departments and concluded that, on average, clean energy jobs pay 25% more than the national median wage, are more likely to include retirement and healthcare benefits, and have more unionized workers than other sectors.
Want numbers? Jobs in renewable energy, energy efficiency, electric grid modernization, and clean fuels and vehicles paid a median hourly wage of $23.89 in 2019, almost $6 an hour higher than the national median wage of $19.14. Jobs in solar energy paid $24.48 an hour, wind and grid modernization jobs averaged more than $25 an hour, and jobs in energy efficiency offered a median hourly wage of $24.44. Many of these jobs actually pay more than jobs in fossil fuel industries, E2 says.
The money is good, yes. But green industries offer more than a nice income. “You have the potential for a good living, and also doing good,” Norris says.
Rand Manasse, chief operating officer of Sunrise Solar Solutions in Briarcliff Manor, agrees. When working in solar, he says, “You are making a difference in this world. Anyone can get a job behind a desk or working in a warehouse. When you are working in the solar industry, the outcome of your work is that you are making a difference in the fight against climate change. We all need to contribute, and in our business, anyone can contribute, whether you are a financial wiz, salesperson, have an advanced degree in sustainability, or just like working on a roof.”
That variety of skills that the clean energy sector needs sets it apart from other industries. Take Dandelion Energy, in Peekskill. They market geothermal heating and cooling systems that use the earth’s natural temperature regulation to keep your house comfortable. “The work is very unique as it encompasses multidisciplinary roles,” says Hagit Farago, the company’s director of talent acquisition. “We have people who work in the field and install our systems — like HVAC installers, drillers, heavy equipment operators — and then we have software engineers, finance, sales, marketing, and product folks.”
Like a lot of companies that rely on skilled labor, Dandelion is faced with a shortage of workers. “There are objectively not enough HVAC installers, licensed plumbers, licensed electricians, and maybe the hardest of all, sonic drillers. I would love to see more people explore those roles and get themselves into a very high in-demand field with fantastic salaries and career path,” says Farago, adding that “we have a lot of openings on our website,” mostly for HVAC service techs and drillers. “Because of climate change, we’ll see an increase in demand for these roles,” she predicts. “That demand will continue to soar, and it is hard to imagine a day in our future where these jobs will become obsolete.”
“When you are working in the solar industry, the outcome of your work is that you are making a difference in the fight against climate change.”
—Rand Manasse, Chief Operating Officer, Sunrise Solar Solutions
For workers looking for a career change, educational cooperative BOCES offers a three-month HVAC program to gain basic knowledge. Dandelion will hire and train graduates of such programs, and similar opportunities exist in solar. “There are many courses offered at local schools if that is the course that a person wants to pursue. I know that Westchester Community College and Pace offer some excellent programs,” Manasse says. “On the other hand, if school is not your thing and you have roof work experience, apply for a job on our website.”
The greatest opportunities, he says, are “for those just starting out. Whether you have a new degree in renewable energy or sustainability from one of the local colleges and you want to help design and develop a new solar project, or you do not have a degree and just want a new career installing solar panels on residential or commercial roofs, we always have job openings and look for candidates that have the desire to be successful, a good work ethic, and are willing to learn.”
Prospects can also team up with firms like Soulful Synergy. They have partnered with Willdan Group, an international engineering and energy solutions firm that helps businesses become more energy efficient and sustainable. Together, they have developed the Willdan Clean Energy Academy, funded by a $250,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Its Small Commercial Energy Auditing Training (SCEAT) course is a free, 60-hour course that prepares students for jobs in clean energy.
The course “attracts people who want to do something positive, but often don’t know what this is. We love that,” says Antuan Cannon, deputy program manager for Willdan Group. Participants in the course, he says, come from all walks of life, “from Yale to jail, literally. We are looking for motivated, accountable people. Our job is to help show them the roadmap.” And that map is filled with promise; “We now have more job openings than people,” Cannon says.
“Students see the opportunity themselves,” says Alejandro Alvarez, co-founder of Soulful Synergy. “This is a new industry where we can discover and expand on people’s superhero powers to do impactful work.”