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The U.S. hydropower industry faces an oncoming wave of retirements, and a new, diverse workforce is critical to the industry’s ability to sustain current operations and grow to support the Biden administration’s goals of a carbon-free power grid by 2035 and a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050. More hydropower-focused educational and training opportunities are also needed to address recruitment and hiring challenges.

A new report funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), U.S. Hydropower Workforce: Challenges and Opportunities, provides an analysis of these and other current hydropower workforce trends and needs based on data collected by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Hydropower Foundation.

The hydropower workforce currently includes an estimated 72,415 workers, with 7,901 working in pumped storage hydropower and 64,514 supporting conventional hydropower. This includes workers onsite at hydropower facilities of all sizes as well as offsite workers in fields such as technology development, regulatory affairs, and construction, and marks a decrease in about 3,300 workers from 2019.

The hydropower industry represents 7.5% of workers employed in the electricity sector, coming in ahead of nuclear (6.5%) but behind solar power (39%), wind energy (14%), and coal (8.3%).

According to the report, barriers that could be hindering workforce growth include a lack of hydropower educational programs and student awareness of the industry, an aging workforce and high rate of retirement, and competition with other industries, particularly for jobs in engineering and skilled crafts and trades.

The study finds the hydropower workforce pipeline could be strengthened by providing more hydropower coursework, expanding hands-on learning opportunities for students through efforts such as collegiate competitions, and creating new programs like fellowships that provide relevant work experience. Further, challenges with recruiting and new hydropower workers’ job readiness could be overcome by expanding technical training, apprenticeships, and educational outreach.

The report is based on NREL’s engagement over the last four years with the hydropower industry, academia, and students to understand the perspectives and challenges of the U.S. hydropower workforce pipeline.

The report also found the following:

  • Demographic data and survey responses show more work is needed to increase diversity in the U.S. hydropower workforce.
    • Most workers are men (69%), higher than the average U.S. working population (53%).
    • There are slightly more women working in hydropower (31%) when compared to the energy sector as a whole (25%), but there are far fewer women working in hydropower than the overall U.S. working population (47%).
    • The share of non-white workers in the hydropower industry (30%) is higher than the U.S. energy workforce (26%) and general workforce (22%); however, the percentage of white workers in hydropower has increased 2% since 2019.
    • About 73% of industry survey respondents indicate they think the hydropower industry has difficulty recruiting women, minorities, tribal members, and veterans. Survey respondents state these challenges are largely due to limited interest from these groups.
  • Nearly 70% of the U.S. schools surveyed do not offer hydropower degree programs, and more than 60% of U.S. students surveyed indicate they were either unsure or did not see hydropower as a growing field.
  • More than 77% of industry respondents surveyed state recent graduates have limited knowledge of the hydropower industry, with 23% stating they seem to have no knowledge.
  • Jobs in skilled crafts and trades and engineering services will likely be impacted by high retirement and turnover rates in hydropower in the next five to 10 years.
  • Based on the current hydropower development pipeline, conventional and pumped storage hydropower could add an additional 9,000 jobs, in addition to maintaining the current workforce. 

WPTO and the report’s authors are already working to address several of the identified challenges. WPTO’s new Hydropower Collegiate Competition aims to spread awareness of hydropower career opportunities and recruit students from diverse disciplines and backgrounds to the sector. Along with other DOE offices, WPTO is connecting recent graduates and transitioning professionals with opportunities to support clean energy organizations through the Clean Energy Innovator Fellowship.

WPTO, NREL, and the Hydropower Foundation are also working to fill hydropower workforce and education gaps by partnering with nonprofits that support teachers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). They are also developing open-access educational and training resources, tools for job seekers, and hands-on collaboration and engagement opportunities with an intentional approach to diversity and inclusion through all these activities. Educational resources and other products from these efforts can be found in the STEM for Hydropower portal.

Hydropower may be more than a century old, but the industry’s technologies have evolved to meet modern needs. For example, closed-loop pumped storage hydropower plants can provide much-needed long-term energy storage while protecting local ecosystems. Modern investments in low-impact hydropower, safe fish passage, and efforts to add power-generating infrastructure to existing dams are all helping the industry become more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Such advancements, combined with the next-generation hydropower workforce, will help to make the clean energy future a reality.

Stay up to date with WPTO’s latest hydropower funding opportunities, events, and news by subscribing to the monthly Hydro Headlines and the bimonthly Water Wire newsletters.