Monique Verdin, "Headwaters : Tamaracks + Time : Lake Itasca" (2019), digital assemblage. Photograph taken in 2019; United States War Department map of the route passed over by an expedition into the Indian country in 1832 to the source of the Mississippi River.

What the Energy Transition Means for Jobs


When the Energy Transition Comes to Town

In “When the Energy Transition Comes to Town” (Issues, Fall 2023), Jillian E. Miles, Christophe Combemale, and Valerie J. Karplus highlight critical challenges to transitioning US fossil fuel workers to green jobs. Improved data on workers’ skills, engagement with fossil fuel communities, and increasingly sophisticated models for labor outcomes are each critical steps to inform prudent policy. However, while policymakers and researchers focus on workers’ skills, the larger issue is that fossil fuel communities will not experience green job growth without significant policy intervention.

A recent article I coauthored in Nature Communications looked at data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census Bureau to track the skills of fossil fuel workers and how they have moved between industries and states historically. The study found that fossil fuel workers’ skills are actually well-matched to green industry jobs, and that skill matching has been an important factor in their past career mobility. However, the bigger problem is that fossil fuel workers are historically unwilling to relocate to the regions where green jobs will emerge over the next decade. Policy interventions, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, could help by incentivizing job growth in fossil fuel communities, but success requires that policy be informed by the people who live in those communities.

While policymakers and researchers focus on workers’ skills, the larger issue is that fossil fuel communities will not experience green job growth without significant policy intervention.

Even with this large-scale federal data, it’s still unclear what the precise demands of emerging green jobs will be. For example, will emerging green jobs be stable long-term career opportunities? Or will they be temporary jobs that emerge to support an initial wave of green infrastructure but then fade once the infrastructure is established? We need better models of skills and green industry labor demands to distinguish between these two possibilities.

It’s also hard to describe the diversity of workers in “fossil fuel” occupations. The blanket term encompasses coal mining, natural gas extraction, and offshore drilling, each of which vary in the skills and spatial mobility required by workers. Coal miners typically live near the mine, while offshore drilling workers are on-site for weeks at a time before returning to homes anywhere in the country.

Federal data may represent the entire US economy, but new alternative data offer more nuanced insights into real-time employer demands and workers’ career trajectories. Recent studies of technology and the future of work utilize job postings and workers’ resumes from online job platforms, such as Indeed and LinkedIn. Job postings enable employers to list preferred skills as they shift to reflect economic dynamics—even conveying shifting skill demands for the same job title over time. While federal labor data represent a population at a given time, resumes enable the tracking of individuals over their careers detailing things such as career mobility between industries, spatial mobility between labor markets, and seniority/tenure at each job. Although these data sources may fail to represent the whole population of fossil fuel workers, they have the potential to complement traditional federal data so that we can pinpoint the exact workers and communities that need policy interventions.

Assistant Professor

Department of Informatics and Networked Systems

University of Pittsburgh

Cite this Article

“What the Energy Transition Means for Jobs.” Issues in Science and Technology 40, no. 2 (Winter 2024).

Vol. XL, No. 2, Winter 2024