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Study: Green energy transition may leave some workers behind

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Authored by: Carson Easterly

Photography by: Evgeniy Aloyshin on Unsplash

Faculty & Research


Analysis shows both potential and unequal opportunity in green jobs market

Philadelphia, PA — While the move away from fossil fuels has created an increase in available “green” jobs, the transition may also “exacerbate trends in labor market inequality,” according to a new study coauthored by Dr. R. Jisung Park, an assistant professor at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) with a secondary appointment at the Wharton School.

In the study, published today in the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dr. Park and coauthors E. Mark Curtis of Wake Forest University and Layla O’Kane of Lightcast explore how workers may be affected by a shrinking labor market in carbon-intensive, or “dirty,” industries due to climate mitigation policies.

By analyzing data from 130 million online work profiles representing approximately 300 million job-to-job transitions, the authors investigate the labor market implications of the shift from fossil fuels towards less carbon-intensive energy sources.

They find the rate of workers transitioning from dirty to green jobs is rapidly rising. The number of available green jobs, including electric vehicle (EV)-related positions, is also on the rise, and these green jobs offer similar opportunities for longer-term employment. “If this continues then we will expect to see a sizable number of workers currently employed in dirty jobs to transition to green jobs,” Dr. Park and colleagues write.

At the same time, these transitions currently only represent a small number of workers. Findings also show older workers and those without a college education are less likely to transition to green jobs. A majority of workers acquiring green jobs do not come from dirty industries and many are first-time job holders. Further, a high rate of persistence within dirty jobs in some places suggests there may be limits to alternate employment that local labor markets can offer potentially displaced workers transitioning away from fossil fuels.

“Our findings highlight the importance of understanding the outside options available to workers, including in cleaner industries and other local industries where their skills may be a good match,” write Dr. Park and colleagues.

Park is an environmental and labor economist interested broadly in how environmental factors shape economic opportunity. Prior to joining Penn, he was a member of the faculty at UCLA, and a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard. Park’s research combines data, quasi-experimental methods, and economic analysis to better understand the implications of environmental change for human flourishing, and how effective policy responses may be designed.

About Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2)

For more than 110 years, the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) has been a powerful force for good in the world, working towards social justice and social change through research and practice. SP2 contributes to the advancement of more effective, efficient, and humane human services through education, research, and civic engagement. The School offers five top-ranked, highly respected degree programs along with a range of certificate programs and dual degrees. SP2’s transdisciplinary research centers and initiatives — many collaborations with Penn’s other professional schools — yield innovative ideas and better ways to shape policy and service delivery. The passionate pursuit of social innovation, impact, and justice is at the heart of the School’s knowledge-building activities.