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New study: it would be cheap to retrain coal workers for solar jobs

The skills required in the two industries are not as mismatched as you might think.

coal engineer (Shutterstock)

Coal is dying in the US, and solar is booming. That’s good news for a whole variety of reasons, but it sucks for the people who work in the coal industry, which has shed 50,000 jobs in the last five years.

What if all those unemployed coal workers could get jobs in the solar industry?

That’s the scenario explored in a new study published in the journal Energy Economics, by scholars Joshua Pearce of Michigan Technological University and Edward Louie of Oregon State University.

It’s a somewhat idealized scenario — it doesn’t contend with confounding factors like geography and culture (more on that in a second) — but it is intriguing nonetheless.

Louie and Pearce explore three questions: How closely do the skills in the coal industry match needed skills in the solar industry? What would it cost to retrain coal workers for the (closest matching) solar job? And where could that money come from?

The answers are all pretty hopeful: The skills match pretty well, it wouldn’t cost that much, and there are a number of possible sources of funding.

Let’s dive in.

For most coal jobs, there are reasonably well-matched, well-paying solar jobs

Pearce summarizes the methodology in a piece in the Harvard Business Review:

Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we looked at all current coal industry positions (from engineers to mining and power plant operators to administrative workers), the skill sets required for each (for example, specific degrees and amount of work experience), and their respective average salaries. For each type of coal position, we determined the closest equivalent solar position and salary. For example, an operations engineer in the coal industry could retrain to be a manufacturing technician in solar and expect about a 10% salary increase. Similarly, explosive workers, ordinance handlers, and blasters in the coal industry could use their sophisticated safety experience and obtain additional training to become commercial solar technicians and earn about 11% more on average.

The results show that there are employment opportunities in solar for every level of education, with a living wage offered for even the lowest skilled jobs.

"In general," Pearce writes, "we found that after retraining, technical workers would make more in the solar industry than previously in coal."

So that seems good. "Managers and particularly executives would make less," Pearce notes, but coal industry executives seem a rather inapt target of sympathy at the moment.

Don Blankenship
Maybe Don Blankenship can get some retraining in prison.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

How much would it cost, in time and money, to retrain all those workers? Best-case scenario, $180 million. Worst-case, $1.8 billion. That amount "would allow the vast majority of U.S. coal workers to switch to solar-related positions."

Obviously the exact investment of time and money will depend on the position and the individual. Coal workers can use the study’s appendices to find their best match in the solar industry.

How to fund all this?

Our paper evaluated four ways this training could be funded. First, coal workers could fund their own retraining. Second, coal companies could fund retraining of their own workers before laying them off. … It would only take 5% of coal company revenue from a single year to provide "scholarships" to their workers to fully pay for the retraining they would need to move to solar. A third way to fund would be individual states providing "coal to solar" transition programs. And the fourth option is the federal government could fund the retraining.


It ain’t that simple

As I said, this is a somewhat idealized exercise that assumes American workers can be moved around like chess pieces. There’s a lot more involved in moving an entire workforce to a new industry than skills and salary matches.

For one thing, there’s location. Lots of lost coal jobs are centered in Appalachia, for instance, which isn’t exactly a hotbed of solar development. And solar jobs remain overwhelmingly California-centric.

solar jobs
Information from the 2015 Solar Jobs Census.
(The Solar Foundation)

I asked Pearce about the location issue and he acknowledged that it would be a good metric to add to future studies, but made this point:

The relatively large labor needs of solar as compared to coal, however, mean that even relatively modest solar activity in a given state creates many more jobs than would be lost if coal power of the same magnitude came off line. Coal is a mature industry with large scale automation having already cut out a lot of the historical coal jobs. Solar, on the other hand, has similar engineering jobs but a relatively huge need for positions like installer (which need only modest training).

Even a little solar in an area can compensate, employment wise, for a lot of lost coal. Solar is now making strides in North Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, so there is hope for Appalachia yet (though West Virginia ranks 43rd in installed PV capacity).

Economists hate this, of course. To them, the fact that solar requires more labor input for the same power output as coal is a macroeconomic demerit, a loss of productivity. But in human and social terms, there are people involved, they need jobs, and they don’t have a ton of other opportunities.

Still, it’s not just location. Solar industry culture is different from the culture in many coal communities and coal companies. Solar is still a young industry, freewheeling, with lots of churn. Coal is old and deeply rooted. There are bridges to be built. This is happening, somewhat, as solar spreads in the heartland, but there’s a long way to go.

Finally, the fact remains that large-scale job retraining programs have a pretty dismal record in the US. The retraining programs that work tend to involve an established pipeline. They teach specific skills geared toward specific jobs in industries where there is real labor market demand, usually in partnership with businesses in those industries, which provide apprenticeships and on-the-job training. There’s no point retraining people if there aren’t jobs waiting. (Dwyer Gunn has a fantastic story in Pacific Standard on the ins and outs of retraining displaced coal workers.)

Who pays for retraining?

It’s difficult to get funding out of Congress. (Remember that Republicans are already refusing to fund an Appalachian aid program.) Coal companies seem unlikely to pony up, given that they are locked in mortal political combat with the national Democratic Party and its representatives, most notably Hillary Clinton. And workers paying for their own retraining? Blech.

Mitch McConnell cares so much about coal workers that he’s blocking a fix to their pensions.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

I asked the folks at the Solar Foundation, a smart, DC-based solar nonprofit that does a lot of work around training, if they’d ever heard of a program focused on retraining coal workers for solar jobs. They hadn’t, though they pointed to $2.1 million in federal funding, just last month, for the Solar Training Network:

The Solar Training Network will help build the infrastructure to meet President Obama’s 2015 commitment to train 75,000 people for careers in solar by 2020. … For solar job seekers, the Solar Training Network will improve access to solar training, resources, and careers. For employers, it will increase the quality and diversity of the solar workforce and establish nationally consistent training standards.

That’s good stuff.

But still, given the political state of play at the moment, a solar industry-funded program specifically focused on retraining coal workers for solar jobs might be just what the doctor ordered.

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