Opinion Graphic

Renewable energy is the coolest thing since sliced bread — because sustainable energy generation is critical for everyone’s future wellbeing. Last year, the U.S. wind and solar industries added jobs nine to 17 times faster than the overall economy. As a soon-to-be graduate, I want a career in the renewable industry. Sure, people are being hired, but who is getting hired? Can I get a job if I’m not an engineer? What skills will the industry need?

I spent my summer trying to answer these questions by surveying a wide variety of renewable energy companies. Most companies were in North Carolina and ranged from small residential solar installers to large windmill manufacturers. So, after hours of research and about 300 phone calls, here’s what I now know.

Common themes of advice from prospective employees included going to college; choosing a degree that interests you is paramount. All types of degrees are needed from business and policy to engineering and technology management.

Further themes: get certified. You can get the desirable ‘NABCEP’ certification from NC State’s Clean Energy Technology Center (CETC), some community colleges, or through private organizations. Get a relevant internship. Experience is invaluable! Lastly, learn to network. Join related clubs, participate in competitions, get certifications, etc. 

In my survey, I asked employers about the level of their work-force’s education. Most employers reported 100 percent of their employees having at least a high school diploma and 75-100 percent having a bachelor’s degree. Less than half of that workforce has some type of professional certification and a much smaller portion (~25 percent) of employees have either a master’s or associate's degree. 

When asked what type of degrees their employees have, the most frequent response was in the ‘Engineering/Technology’ category at 30 percent, followed closely by ‘Environmental/Sciences’ at 28 percent. Degrees in ‘Business/Economics/HR’ and ‘Law/ Regulatory/Policy’ made up smaller portions of the workforce at 19 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

The remaining 6 percent were ‘other’ degrees such as sociology and public administration. Obviously, STEM degrees are more prevalent in this industry, but this is very promising for those who are not pursuing an engineering degree!

I also asked questions regarding hiring likelihoods for various degrees and experiences. The responses were ranked from ‘not likely’ to ‘absolutely’ to be hired. As expected, the ‘‘renewable-energy, STEM degree” option was the number one response overall and within the ‘very likely’ category. ‘Prior work experience/internship’ and ‘STEM degree with a renewable energy minor/certificate’ options were also highly recorded in both the ’very likely’ and ‘absolutely’ categories.

Employers were found to be ‘likely’ to hire someone with a professional certificate. Last, but not least, the ‘non-STEM degree’ option was the highest recorded response overall in the ‘somewhat likely’ category. These results indicate that all types of degrees are needed in the industry, but graduates with STEM degrees are definitely more likely to be hired.

When asked what factors were important for employee advancement, ‘Job performance’ was overall the most popular response. When comparing the various degree options, having a bachelor's degree was recorded most often in the ‘needed’ category while having an associate’s degree was only reported in the ‘somewhat important’ category. ‘Obtaining a bachelor's degree’ and ‘completing continuing education courses’ were also highly reported in the ‘important’ category as well.

Surprisingly, having a master's degree was mostly reported to be ‘not important’. Obviously, job performance is needed to advance in a company, but having a bachelor’s degree definitely helps. So congratulations, if you're an undergraduate student, you are already ahead of your competition.

I asked employers which positions they expect to hire within the next five years. Almost 23 percent expect to hire one or more project managers in the near future, followed closely by field technicians at 18 percent. Coming in third, 15 percent of employers expect to hire someone in engineering. In fourth, careers in finance/ accounting/ marketing were reported at 11 percent.

Finally, expected careers in policy/regulation and IT/programming shared the same hiring expectancy at 10 percent. Expected positions in data analytics and manufacturing made up the remaining percentages. As you can see, all types of employees will be needed in the future.

These results are good news for us imminent job seekers. Having a STEM degree definitely gives you a better chance at landing a job, and these companies are looking for business or policy majors as well! All types of expertise are needed in the future, and, as NC State undergraduates, we are ahead of the competition.

Make sure to check out NC State’s Renewable Energy Assessment Minor & Certificate program. Also, networking and internships will definitely help you land a job. Best of luck to you (and me) if you are graduating this May!  

Brendan Joyce is an ETM major graduating this May and already employed in the renewable industry.  The research was supported with funds from NC State's Office of Undergraduate Research.