Industry Outlook

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant negative effect on employment in the U.S. fossil fuel and renewable energy sectors. Energy use (especially gasoline and jet fuel, but also electricity) decreased significantly during the height of the pandemic and this, coupled with already low prices for oil and natural gas, prompted many companies to layoff a large percentage of their workforces and halt new exploration activities. The New York Times reports that approximately 20 American oil and gas companies (including Chesapeake Energy) declared bankruptcy in the first half of 2020. A total of 227 companies filed for bankruptcy in a five-year span that ended on May 31, 2020.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that after having fallen by nearly 4 percent in 2020, retail sales of electricity for the residential sector will grow by more than 2 percent in 2021, and that sales of electricity for both commercial and retail sectors will grow by nearly 2 percent in 2022. Electric power generated by natural gas declined by nearly 40 percent in 2020, and was expected to drop by 37 percent in 2021 and by 35 percent in 2022. This decline over the next few years will be in response to a forecast of rising prices for natural gas delivered to electricity generators. Other forecasts by the EIA for growth rates of electricity by fuel source included: coal, to grow by 21 percent in 2021 and by 22 percent in 2022; renewable energy sources, to grow by 21 percent in 2021 and by 23 percent in 2022; nuclear generation, decline by 20 percent in 2021 and by 19 percent in 2022. As of 2021, the new administration is focused on climate change and plans to make the U.S. a clean energy economy. This will effect each energy sector differently in the coming years

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) provides employment predictions for many occupations in the oil and gas industry. Petroleum, mining, and geological engineers, for example, will experience growth of 3 percent (more slowly than the average for all careers) through 2028. Employment of geological and petroleum technicians is expected to grow by 7 percent (faster than the average). Here are employment outlooks for other types of engineers in the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction sector:

  • Chemical engineers: -2.4 percent
  • Civil engineers: +0.1 percent
  • Electrical engineers: +11 percent
  • Environmental engineers: +0.8 percent
  • Industrial engineers: +0.3 percent.

Demand for biochemists will increase. The DOL predicts that employment for these scientists will grow by 6 percent through 2028. Biochemists will continue to play an important role in the development of alternative energy services, especially biofuels, as well as in the developing of more environmentally friendly processes to refine oil.

Job opportunities for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers are expected to decline through 2028, according to the DOL. Technological advances and greater efficiency (including the automation of some tasks due to the implementation of smart grid technology) have reduced the need for these professionals.

Over the long term, opportunities in the oil and natural gas industries may continue to decline if oil and gas prices stay low, which reduces profits for oil and gas companies. Companies will also continue to leverage their employees’ remote work capabilities, as well as increase the use of automated drilling and production processes, in order to reduce costs. These actions will reduce employment in the industry. Public concern about protecting the environment and global climate change and increasing interest in renewable energy may also deter growth in this sector. If renewable energy manufacturing and installation costs continue to drop, and political trends favor green energy through government subsidies and tax credits, the balance between the sectors may further tilt away from oil and gas. In response to the growing popularity of renewable energy, some large oil and gas companies are purchasing renewable energy companies or investing in wind, solar, and other renewable energy technologies in order to increase revenue.

Another challenge faced by the oil and natural gas industries is the lack of interest in energy careers by young people. A 2017 survey of members of Generation Z by the professional services firm EY found that 62 percent of respondents viewed a career in these field as “unappealing.” Only 36 percent of respondents believed that the oil and gas industry had a “positive impact on local and global communities.” In addition, a majority of respondents viewed the oil and gas industries as offering primarily blue-collar jobs, despite the fact there are many white-collar jobs and that the number of high-tech careers in these fields are increasingly rapidly. The results of this survey demonstrate that the oil and gas industries need to dispel these stereotypes and educate young people about the many interesting and varied career paths that are open to them.

Prospects for alternative energy jobs vary by sector. Some sectors are experiencing excellent growth. For example, the wind and solar power industries are growing much faster than the hydropower or geothermal industries due to decreasing manufacturing costs, expanding capacity, and falling prices for energy storage devices (especially lithium-ion batteries). The DOL reports that solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine technicians will be the two fastest-growing careers in the United States through 2028.

Employment for solar photovoltaic installers is expected to grow by a whopping 63 percent through 2028 due to the increasing installation of solar panels to homes, businesses, and other buildings, and the growth of solar farms. Demand will also grow for technicians who can service solar panels and systems.

Job opportunities for wind turbine technicians are expected to increase by 57 percent through 2028. The cost of wind power technology has declined in recent years, which, along with the public’s interest in renewable energy, is fueling demand for wind turbine technicians. Employment opportunities vary by state, with the most jobs available in states that are located on the Great Plains, in the Midwest, and along the coasts. Additionally, building the infrastructure that allows wind and solar energy producers to join the national grid is expensive, so taxpayer and government support is critical. Without it, growth may be slow in these sectors.

The strong employment outlook for the wind and solar sectors depends in large part on government incentives (tax rebates, direct subsidies, renewable energy purchase mandates, and net metering), cost, and the continued improvement of solar and wind technology. Without this support from the government opportunities in renewable energy may decline. The American public seems to strongly favor the use of renewable energy. In 2019, 60 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup supported proposals to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Eighty percent of those surveyed believed that more emphasis should be placed on developing domestic energy sources from solar power. Seventy percent of respondents felt the same way about developing wind power. On the other hand, only 28 percent believed that more emphasis should be placed on developing domestic energy from oil.

Employment in the hydropower energy industry should remain good in the next decade. Approximately 300,000 people work in the hydropower industry. Hydropower—sometimes called America’s oldest, but most-forgotten, form of renewable energy—is an abundant alternative energy source. It can also be used to produce electricity inexpensively without harmful emissions, and it is available in every region of the United States.

There will continue to be opportunities in the geothermal energy industry, especially of advances in technology and costs are reduced for geothermal projects. “Technology improvements could reduce costs and increase geothermal electric power deployment,” according to GEO Vision: Harnessing the Heat Beneath Our Feet, from the U.S. Department of Energy. “Improving the tools, technologies, and methodologies used to explore, discover, access, and manage geothermal resources would reduce costs and risks associated with geothermal developments. These reductions could increase geothermal power generation nearly 26-fold from today, representing 60 gigawatts-electric (GWe)3 of always-on, flexible electricity-generation capacity by 2050. This capacity makes up 3.7 percent of total U.S. installed capacity in 2050, and it generates 8.5 percent of all U.S. electricity generation.”

Alternative energy jobs offer a broad range of annual salaries. Engineers typically earn higher salaries ($90,000 to $150,000) while field workers and operators earn lower salaries. For example, wind turbine service technicians earned starting salaries of $39,820 in 2019, according to the DOL. With experience, technicians could earn $80,150 or more annually.

Growing government and industry concerns about cyberattacks on energy facilities, power grids, and industry data have prompted an increasing focus on cybersecurity in the energy industry. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy created the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response to oversee its emergency cybersecurity preparedness and response to disruptions to the energy sector, including physical and cyber-attacks, natural disasters, and human-caused events. This emphasis on cybersecurity has created demand for computer security professionals. “Cybersecurity is receiving the maximum attention from power companies in order to protect grids from cyber-attacks,” according to Harminder Singh, power director at data and analytics firm GlobalData, in an interview at Nsenergybusiness.com. “