— John F. Kerry, special presidential envoy for climate, in remarks at the White House, Jan. 27, 2021
“Before covid, the fastest-growing job in the United States of America was solar panel technician, and the second-fastest-growing job was wind turbine technician.”
— Kerry, remarks on MSNBC, Jan. 28
This is clearly the favorite talking point of the former secretary of state, now tasked to spearhead President Biden’s efforts to build international support to mitigate climate change.
But this is also a great example of how some “facts” can be misleading when taken out of context.
Kerry was responding to a question from a reporter about the concerns of workers in the fossil-fuel industries who “are seeing an end to their livelihoods.” He was appropriately careful in noting that he was talking about pre-pandemic statistics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a report on Sept. 1 with employment projections for 2019-2029, with a large note that the numbers were crafted and calculated mostly in a pre-pandemic world.
When we go to the BLS webpage listing the fastest-growing occupations, we find that first place shows “wind turbine service technicians,” with a projected gain of 60.7 percent, second place is “nurse practitioners,” at 52.4 percent, and third place is “solar photovoltaic installers,” at 50.5 percent.
Okay, so Kerry has been bungling his talking point a bit. Wind is before solar, not vice versa, and those professions are projected to be the first- and third-fastest-growing jobs, not first and second. (A State Department spokesman pointed out that in the 2018-2028 projections, solar was first, followed by wind turbine jobs.)
For the purposes of this fact check, we’re more interested in how many jobs are represented by those percentages. After all, at the White House, Kerry mentioned these statistics in the context of coal mining jobs — “The same people can do those jobs” — which before the pandemic amounted to about 50,000 jobs (and about 30,000 below surface). Could these solar and wind jobs match that number?
In sum, no.
Wind turbine jobs are projected to go up by 4,300, from 7,000 to 11,300 in 10 years. The solar installer jobs are projected to go up 6,100, from 12,000 to 18,100. That’s a total increase of just 10,400 jobs — leaving 20,000 coal workers still toiling in the mines. (Oops, we got a bit carried away with our language in an earlier version of this article, so have corrected the previous sentence. The 50,000-figure refers to all workers in the coal-mining industry; there are a little over 30,000 workers who work underground.)
(The category of nurse practitioners, on the other hand, is projected to experience a serious increase — a gain of almost 111,000 jobs, from just over 211,000 to 322,000.)
BLS has a convenient list of the 30 occupations with the most projected job growth. No. 1 is home health and personal-care aides — with a projected gain of nearly 1.2 million jobs. Nurse practitioners show up in 13th place. But wind and solar jobs don’t make the cut at all.
In fact, when we tried to find solar and wind on another BLS list — jobs ranked by projected annual openings through 2029 — we had to scroll past about 600 occupations before we landed on solar installers, with an average of 2,300 openings a year. Wind turbine jobs, with a projected average of 1,300 openings a year, was even further down the list.
It’s worth noting that Kerry said “the same people” can do coal mining or green-energy jobs. But it’s not an instant shift. BLS says solar installers require “moderate-term on-the-job training,” while wind turbine technicians require “long-term on-the-job training.”
“We’re not starting from a small baseline in clean-energy employment,” the State Department spokesman said. “According to a report from E2, in 2020 there were over 3 million Americans employed in clean energy and energy efficiency, with over 500,000 Americans employed in solar and wind energy in particular. In just one year, in 2018, more than 110,000 jobs were created in clean energy alone.”
We should note that the State Department spokesman is not citing government statistics. Instead, the citations in the spokesman’s comment were a report from E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), an environmental group, and an article in Forbes by the communications director for Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based energy and environmental policy firm.
BLS in 2010 began to track green-job statistics, but the collection was ended in 2013 because of budget cuts forced by a deficit-reduction deal. Another official source of green-jobs data, the U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER), lost its Energy Department funding in 2018 and is now state and privately funded. The most recent USEER report shows that in 2019, solar-energy firms employed 248,000 people who mostly worked on solar, an increase of 2.3 percent (5,700 jobs) over the year before; wind companies employed 114,800 people, an annual increase of 3.2 percent, or 3,600 employees. More than half of the solar employees were involved in construction, the USEER report said.
The Pinocchio Test
We will excuse the fact that Kerry got the order wrong on which jobs had the biggest projected growth. He was close enough for government work, and he carefully noted that these were pre-pandemic estimates.
But his framing is misleading because, according to the government statistics he relied on, the actual number of jobs is relatively small. The percentage gain is so high because the number of jobs in 2019 for both solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians is relatively small. The projected new jobs in these industries over 10 years amount to just 20 percent of the current number of coal jobs — and they do not pay as well either.
Of course, this might change if the Biden administration succeeds in its green-energy push. But until then, Kerry is offering false hope with a misleading use of statistics.
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