Morgan Frank sits at his office desk
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The biggest barrier to getting fossil fuel workers green jobs isn’t skills — it’s location

  • Innovation and Research
  • Sustainability
  • School of Computing and Information

Between the Inflation Reduction Act and the EU’s Just Transition Mechanism, both the United States and Europe are poised to put tens of billions of dollars toward creating green jobs. At the same time, there are conversations about how to ensure workers in the current fossil fuel industry have the skills to participate in this green revolution.

But new research published today in Nature Communications shows many fossil fuel workers have the right skills already — the problem is that those new green jobs likely won’t be in the right place. The results spell a message for those planning a greener economy: If all they think about is reskilling, their efforts are unlikely to bear fruit.

“Our results challenge the prevailing narrative that we hear from policymakers,” said Morgan Frank, an assistant professor in Pitt’s School of Computing and Information and corresponding author on the study. “Yes, fossil fuel workers do appear to have the skills to use green jobs. But it doesn’t look like fossil fuel workers historically have had a lot of spatial mobility over the course of their careers.”

The question of what will happen to fossil fuel workers during a transition to green energy carries high stakes: in the U.S. alone, a phase-out of fossil fuels by 2050 would displace more than 1.7 million workers. To address that question, Frank and his colleagues drew on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics that map out the skills workers make use of in these different industries and how the workers moved between states and industries in the past.

There was a substantial overlap between the skills workers use in fossil fuel extraction and those they would need for green jobs — but then, the team mapped out the current locations of green energy plants across the country and compared them against current fossil fuel hotspots. Fossil fuel extraction happens largely in Appalachian states, Texas, New Mexico and the Midwest. Solar energy plants, to take one example, are clustered along the coasts.

“You can just eyeball this and see there’s no overlap,” said Frank. “So it’s very discouraging, even with this very simple version of the analysis.”

Running more complex models that predicted future green job potential delivered similar results. According to their simulation, in the 15 biggest regions for fossil fuel extraction, less than 1.5% of fossil fuel workers are likely to transition to green jobs.

Political scientists have long suspected skills are only one barrier to a transition to green energy. Although previous studies tackled similar questions by, for instance, interviewing fossil fuel workers, this is the first study to put detailed numbers to the phenomenon.

“That allowed us to empirically back up this hunch,” said Frank. “The number one bit of feedback that I've gotten on this project, especially from political scientists, is, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that this data is just out there.’”

That’s not to say reskilling isn’t important — there’s not a perfect match in skills between fossil fuel workers and green energy workers. And there’s another issue: Many jobs in green energy would only last during the construction of a facility. It takes far fewer workers to maintain a solar plant once it’s up and running.

The team, which included Junghyun Lim of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Michaël Aklin of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, also performed additional analyses to clarify what kinds of investments are likely to benefit current fossil fuel extraction workers, but there are many more aspects the researchers couldn’t address with their data, such as social factors that prevent workers from relocating. They plan to include those in future studies, pulling in surveys and even data from job search sites like LinkedIn and Indeed to figure out how policymakers might address the barriers to transitioning between industries.  

What’s clear now is that the picture is more complicated than the prevailing political conversations indicate. One solution, Frank says, is that policymakers could consider targeting current regions of fossil fuel extraction for investment toward other industries as well.

“If you take a broader view, other industries like construction or manufacturing involve heavy machinery, working with tools, building materials and infrastructure,” said Frank. “It could be an easier transition for fossil fuel workers to make. In terms of skills and in terms of distance, it seems much more plausible.”


— Patrick Monahan, photography by Tom Altany