How do electricity sector jobs transform to meet growing demand?

Electrification, clean electricity, and transmission are critical components to a net-zero emissions future, as examined in the NZNW Energy Pathways-Electricity analysis. Electricity is inherently more efficient than fossil fuels in many applications, notably in vehicle motors and heating in buildings. Hence, the most efficient and economic way to decarbonize the economy is to use clean electricity to power as many buildings, transportation, and industrial processes as possible.

As electric appliances and vehicles replace today’s fossil fuel-based equipment at the end of their useful lives, electricity demand increases significantly, as does demand for the resources—and jobs—required to create that electricity. Table 1 shows the electricity subsectors included in the NZNW Workforce analysis, which uses data from the NZNW Energy Pathways Core Case to model the energy jobs that would be created or displaced if the Northwest were to achieve net-zero emissions.

Table 1. Electricity Subsector Descriptions and Example Jobs*

*For a list of resources consulted, see NZNW Workforce Analysis Resources

By 2030, Electricity Sector Jobs Grow by 43%, Driven by Increases in Land-based Wind, Transmission, Distribution, and Solar, while Fossil Fuel Jobs Decline

Figure 1 shows the baseline employment for each subsector, along with the job growth or loss. Overall employment supported by the Electricity sector increases between 2021 and 2030 by nearly 44,400 jobs, a 43% increase, with 46,100 gross new jobs and 2,100 jobs displaced.

As of 2021, the Electricity sector supported nearly 103,400 jobs in the Northwest region,  across direct (associated with the initial economic impact of a given investment or activity), indirect (associated with the supply chain connected to that initial economic activity), and induced (based on the additional household spending resulting from direct and indirect jobs) employment. 

The Distribution subsector supported more jobs than any other Electricity subsector (41% of all Electricity sector jobs), followed by Solar (15%) and Transmission (13%). While nearly all electricity subsectors experience job growth by 2040, jobs decline in two sub-sectors that rely on fossil fuels: Natural Gas Generation and Other Fossil Generation.

Land-based Wind drives the growth in Electricity jobs, due to the large-scale development of wind resources in the NZNW Energy Pathways-Electricity analysis. Transmission and Distribution subsectors also contribute significantly to the growth in Electricity jobs as improvements and expansions to the transmission and grid systems are necessary to meet changing load requirements, increases in electricity needs, and changes in generation mixes in the Northwest. Solar jobs grow more significantly after 2030. While not shown in this figure, the same trends continue through 2050, with Land-based Wind, Transmission, and Distribution sub-sectors driving the growth.

Other Fossil Generation sees more than 1,600 jobs displaced between 2021 and 2030, with retirements in coal and oil capacity. After 2035, the NZNW Energy Pathways modeling assumes that new gas generating capacity will use biomass methane gas, which could theoretically open transition opportunities for current natural gas generation workers, as the facilities themselves could remain in place but the fuel would switch from natural gas to biomass methane gas. This may require retraining workers on new processes and day-to-day operating, but there would likely be many transferable skills and possibilities for current natural gas generation workers to transition with the right planning and support.

Note that the right-hand side of Figure 1 shows the change in employment, not absolute numbers. Hydropower jobs, for example, increase in 2030 and then decrease in 2035 due to modeling assumptions about the timing of hydropower upgrades. Offshore Wind also sees a peak in employment in 2030 due to assumptions about the timing of port development.

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Construction Industry Jobs Drive Electricity Sector Growth

The figure below shows Electricity jobs by industry category. The construction industry sees the most growth in employment, adding over 21,200 jobs by 2030, as investments spur new installation of land-based wind and construction activities around electricity distribution and transmission. Electricity sector manufacturing also sees strong growth, adding more than 5,000 jobs, which establishes career-long employment opportunities in the region, as opposed to shorter term construction job opportunities.

While the trend of increasing construction jobs is consistent across sectors, each sector requires slightly different specific strategies. For instance, utility solar and wind projects will require electricians and technicians with specialized knowledge of larger generation systems.

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Electricity Installation/Repair Occupations Grow by 55% Between 2021 and 2030

In addition to looking at job growth by industry category (Figure 2), this analysis also explored job growth by occupation (Figure 3), which includes direct and indirect jobs, but not induced jobs.

The growth of construction projects installing land-based wind and other activities in support of electricity distribution and transmission leads to a 55% growth in installation/repair occupations between 2021 and 2030. Management/professional occupations are also expected to grow, bringing strong wages and benefits to the region.

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Wage Tier Distribution of Electricity Sector Jobs Does not Change Significantly from 2021 to 2030

In both 2021 and 2030, just over half of the Electricity jobs earn either between $30 to $44 an hour (36%) or more than $44 an hour (15-16%). The other half of Electricity sector jobs earn below $30 an hour, pointing to the importance of including job quality in conversations about increasing Electricity sector jobs.

BW Research based these wage tiers on the MIT Living Wage Calculator at median living wages for different living circumstances in each of the four Northwest states, weighted by employment in each state. The modeling team relied on this national source to maintain consistency across the four Northwest states, rather than introduce state-specific sources.

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With new installed generating capacity, the Northwest would see a dramatic increase in demand for workers in Electricity sector construction and manufacturing jobs. Additionally, the Northwest would need to continue to support workforce development pathways training people for Installation/Repair occupations to meet the growing need.

Siting and permitting is also an area of major focus for the Electricity sector and is often pointed to as a potential bottleneck for the clean energy transition. Resources would be needed for management/professional workers to keep project timelines on track and to consider impacts to surrounding ecosystems and communities.