Does Solar Energy Create Inclusive Job Opportunities?

Source: GIZ

Developed countries such as the USA struggle to make their energy transition socially inclusive, leaving women and minority workers behind. What can we expect in low- and middle-income countries where gender inequalities in the labor market are often more severe to begin with?

By Jonas Fitzke and Kevin Hempel | September 2022

Over the last two decades, the renewable energy sector experienced high investment growth across the globe. Since the solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is a key driver for the global energy transition it is also expected to have significant job creation potential in the future (IRENA, 2019). Recently, Bloomberg reported that the solar energy sector in the USA created 255,000 jobs in 2021 alone.

However, upon a closer look, these job opportunities did not benefit all parts of society equally. For instance, the employment of women and black workers in the solar energy industry (29.6%, 8.2%) lags behind their overall representation in the US workforce. This underrepresentation indicates that there is a real danger that the expansion of solar energy technology aggravates imbalances in the labor markets.

Consequently, a core challenge in driving a socially sustainable energy transition across the world is to make the new employment opportunities that emerge accessible to all parts of society. If a developed country like the USA struggles with this challenge, what can we expect to see in low- and middle-income countries, where labor market inequalities are often more severe to begin with?

What type of jobs are created in the solar industry?

The expansion of photovoltaic technology creates jobs throughout three different phases of deployment and in cross cutting supportive functions:

  • The manufacturing phase promotes jobs in the sourcing and processing of raw materials and in the assembly of the PV modules. Most of these jobs require either secondary or lower education (e.g., engineering craft machinist) or technical and vocational education or training (e.g., electronic assembler, welder). In addition, a smaller number of engineers and scientists with higher education are needed to design processes and techniques for the processing of raw materials, the design of PV technology (e.g., commercial solar PV designer), or to locate raw material sources (e.g., geologists).
  • The installation phase promotes jobs in the design and construction of the PV solar plant and the related logistics to transport modules and to enable the mobility of workers. Common job profiles include logistic workers (e.g., truck and bus driver), construction workers (e.g., construction craft worker, welder) and technicians or electricians (e.g., solar electrician). Moreover, there are opportunities for engineers (e.g., construction project manager) and scientists (e.g., energy meteorologist) that design the solar plant and conduct research.
  • The operation & management of fully installed sites promotes jobs that are needed to ensure the plant’s operativity. Besides the maintenance staff, technicians and electricians, higher educated engineers (e.g., senior operations manager) and scientists (e.g., energy meteorologists) ensure the plant’s performance.
  • Throughout all three phases of deployment jobs in the administration and management of activities are created. Typical jobs include accountants, human resource expert, lawyers and require vocational education or higher education.

From past experiences in countries which experienced a significant expansion of solar energy we know that the greatest employment potential lies in the manufacturing of the PV modules and their installation (see Table 1). However, the jobs created in these phases depend on the rate at which new PV modules are installed. Consequently, they are likely to diminish as soon as required capacities in energy production are met. In turn, while job creation in the O&M phase is more limited, it tends to be more sustainable compared to the other phases since these jobs remain for the entire life span of a PV plant once it is installed.

Table1: Minimum, median and maximum direct employment factors for the main phases of deployment for PV.

Source: Based on Cameron & van der Zwaan, 2015, p.165

Case study: Employment opportunities for women in Tunisia’s solar sector?

The expansion of solar energy has been a main policy priority in Tunisia for the last decade. In 2009, the government issued the Tunisian Solar Plan (TSP) to promote investment in the sector. Given the TSP’s objective to install an energy production capacity of 3 815 MW by 2030 (IRENA, 2021), the manufacturing and installation of PV modules could create over 100,000 direct jobs (applying median values from Table 1). But who will benefit from those jobs? Will the expansion of renewable energy production also provide job opportunities for women, or will it deepen existing gender inequalities in the Tunisian labor market?

In Tunisia (as in other countries), the industries that benefit most from the expansion of PV technology such as the sourcing and processing of raw materials, construction and transportation are male-dominated fields, with very limited representation of women. Even though many Tunisian women work in the manufacturing sector, they are primarily employed in the textile industry and not in industries related to PV technology. Therefore, it is unlikely that the female workforce with lower and vocational education will benefit from the emerging job opportunities in Tunisia.

Moreover, international experience suggests that women are also less likely to occupy the high-skill jobs created such as onsite engineers or project managers. Although 63% of Tunisian university students in 2019-2020 were women and they were strongly represented in relevant fields of study such as engineering (45.7%) and physical sciences (75.8%), in practice the job specifications often hinder women from applying or staying in these occupations. For instance, experience from India indicates that the need for frequent travel (to project sites, contractors or clients) and related security concerns are a major concern for women and the main reason for low female representation in engineering positions in the solar sector (IEA, 2019).

Hence, the main employment opportunities for Tunisian women with higher education degrees lie in the expanding need for corporate support functions such as finance, procurement, or human resources. Women in Tunisia are well placed to access these jobs given that they represent 65% of all students in business administrative studies. While these office-based jobs can of course be attractive, they only represent a small minority of the total number of jobs created.

Conclusions & implications

International experience and Tunisia’s labor market conditions suggest that the job creation associated with the expansion of PV solar energy in the country will mainly benefit male-dominated occupations. To address this challenge and increase the inclusivity of employment opportunities in the sector, concerted efforts are needed:

  • A targeted workforce development strategy is needed to ensure that the skills for the deployment of PV technology are readily available in Tunisia. Such strategy should clearly diagnose current gaps and highlight implications for TVET and higher education institutions.
  • Intentional measures to make relevant study fields and jobs in the solar industry more attractive and accessible to women. Increasing the share of women in currently male-dominated occupations in the solar sector should be a core objective, thus giving Tunisian women better access to well-paying jobs in this industry. This requires a mix of interventions, such as setting gender-related objectives in industry strategies and plans, fostering educational and career pathways for young women in STEM subjects and in the solar industry (e.g., through role models), and fostering exposure of young women to employers in the industry (e.g., through company visits and targeted internship programs). It also requires better working conditions and recruitment processes thereby making the jobs of engineers and scientists in the solar energy sector more accessible to women with higher education.
  • Research on workforce trends in the Tunisian renewable energy sector. Having quality data is a precondition to understand current trends and identify potential issues related to the quantity, quality, and inclusiveness of the jobs created in the solar sector (and other renewables). Hence, different types of research should be considered, such as regular studies on employment patterns in the solar energy industry, studies on training and hiring needs, or an in-depth solar industry diversity study.

The full research study can be found here.

About the authors:

Jonas Fitzke is a final year student at ESB Business School in Germany and NEOMA Business School in France where he is completing a double-degree BSc in International Management. He was an intern at Prospera Consulting in 2022. You can contact him through LinkedIn.

Kevin Hempel is the Founder and Managing Director of Prospera Consulting, a boutique consulting firm working towards stronger policies and programs to facilitate the labor market integration of disadvantaged groups. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.