Fossil-Fuel Workers Likely to Need New Skills in a Net-Zero Future, New Study Finds

A new paper from scholars at Resources for the Future and the University of Oxford finds that, on average, fossil fuel jobs require different skill sets than the high-paying jobs that are expected to grow in the coming decade—an indication that localized workforce development efforts are needed to support fossil fuel workers in the years ahead.


Oct. 25, 2022

News Type

Press Release

As the United States transitions to a net-zero economy, employment in the coal, oil, and natural gas industries is expected to decline considerably. But while employment opportunities are likely to grow in other sectors, a new study from researchers at Resources for the Future (RFF) and the University of Oxford uncovers a tricky situation; on average, fossil fuel workers have a different set of skills than those needed to take advantage of high-paying jobs in growing sectors.

This new paper, which is the first to assess the potential “skills gap” for fossil fuel workers in the United States, emphasizes the need for robust economic and workforce development efforts in places with a high concentration of fossil fuel jobs.

“It’s so important to understand the energy transition at a community level, because that is the scale on which these economic changes are occurring,” RFF Fellow and coauthor Daniel Raimi said. “Fossil fuel workers and communities have powered the national and global economy for over a century; we need this type of local data to create the sound policy that they deserve.”

Raimi and coauthor Jacob Greenspon, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, use the Occupational Information Network’s skill ratings data to examine seven categories of skills needed for jobs in growing fields across the country. They compared that data to skill ratings data needed for fossil fuel-related jobs in the same “commuting zones.” From there, they calculated the differences in skills between the two groups. The authors made a point to look specifically at the standards for jobs that pay at least 90 percent of average fossil fuel salaries: jobs such as general and operations managers, software developers, and quality assurance analysts.

Raimi and Greenspon found that fossil fuel workers generally are well educated, have high levels of technical skills, and receive much higher pay than the national average. However, fast-growing jobs with similar levels of pay require higher levels of skills classified as “social” (e.g., negotiation and persuasion skills) and “content” (e.g., professional writing and speaking). There is also a notable, but smaller, mismatch in process skills (e.g., active learning), complex problem-solving skills, systems skills, and resource management skills.

Areas with the highest concentrations of fossil fuel jobs were in the Intermountain West, Appalachia, west Texas, and the Gulf Coast. In general, commuting zones with these high concentrations of fossil fuel jobs had larger skill gaps, suggesting the need for robust workforce development efforts.

One crucial issue, the authors write, is whether workers will be willing to relocate if good jobs are not available locally. They note that fossil fuel workers in some regions like west Texas may be more willing to relocate than others in places like Appalachia, whose families may have lived in the region for generations.

“A fourth-generation West Virginian coal miner may not want to leave his home and his roots to start a new career somewhere else,” Greenspon said. “It’s not just a matter of people going to where the jobs are—there are many social, cultural, and economic factors at play as well that bind people to their communities. For a successful energy transition, polices will be needed that capitalize on the strengths that these workers have and the skills they are best suited for their local economies.”

Greenspon and Raimi emphasize that these workforce development efforts must not occur in isolation, but instead be paired with locally crafted economic development, environmental remediation, and infrastructure efforts. In some locations, they write, clean energy can play an important role in providing new opportunities but is unlikely to be a “silver bullet” for workers and communities facing economic disruptions.

“The energy transition is upon us,” Greenspon said. “Making sure that it is equitable will require significant effort from all levels of government, the private sector, and civil society. Understanding the local impacts of employment changes is just one piece of a large puzzle—a puzzle that will require all of our hands to put together.”

For more information, read the working paper, “Matching Geographies and Job Skills in the Energy Transition,” by RFF’s Daniel Raimi and the University of Oxford’s Jacob Greenspon.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

For more information, please see our media resources page or contact Media Relations and Communications Specialist Annie McDarris.

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