Can the Energy Industry Solve Persistent African-American Unemployment?

Donald Cravins Jr.
Senior Vice President for Policy and

Executive Director of the Washington Bureau

Late last year, the National Urban League released a report entitled, “21st Century Innovations in Energy: An Equity Framework.” The report is not intended to serve as an environmental position paper, but instead is an economic and inclusion report focusing on the expansive economic opportunities in the American energy industry. It provides: 1) an overview of the domestic electricity, solar, and oil and natural gas industries; 2) current employment numbers in each sector; and 3) economic and employment opportunities in each sector.

The report reveals several issues. First, the United States is experiencing a new era in domestic energy abundance characterized by rising use of renewable energy as well as an increased oil and natural gas production. As a result, there are literally millions of jobs in the sector and experts predict more of the same for the future. Although many Americans are seeing low unemployment rates and experiencing sound economic circumstances, as the State of Black America reports show, African-American communities are still struggling to overcome the most recent economic recession. In many cities, the African-American unemployment rate is still 2.5 to 3 times that of the white unemployment rate. Also, a median Black family is still making only 50 to 60 cents on the dollar a white median family makes.

If the energy industry has millions of jobs, is projected to add millions more, and large portions of its workforce are set to retire in the coming years, then can it be a potential cure for high levels of African-American unemployment? Can we look to the energy sector to finally close the racial wealth gap?

In analyzing its potential for African Americans, it’s important to look at current energy employment numbers and trends. People of color, especially African Americans, remain underemployed in all sectors of the energy industry when compared to total U.S. population. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, African Americans made up 12% of the U.S. labor force in 2015. However, in 2016, out of the 1.3 million persons employed by utility companies, only 10.9% or 143,771 were African American. The 2016 solar industry numbers were even lower, with African Americans constituting just 6.6% of the solar workforce. African Americans continue to represent one of the smallest proportions of any racial group in the solar industry. Unfortunately, African Americans didn’t fare much better in the oil and gas industry. In 2015, African Americans represented only 6.7% of the oil and gas workforce.

If these numbers are to change in the future, the energy sector and organizations serving African Americans will have to undertake steps to erase decades of discrimination and neglect, inequities in our education system and to create programs and models to better prepare African Americans for these jobs. To this end, the National Urban League is aggressively advocating for its “NUL Plan for Working with Private and Public Energy Partners.” The plan addresses each of the issues mentioned above and endeavors to build a dialogue and partnership with the various sectors of the energy industry and with organizations dedicated to inclusion. Our hope is that through open and honest dialogue, African Americans can share in this energy job explosion. Such would be good for African Americans, and most importantly, would be good for America. An America fostering economic opportunity for all of her people while possessing a strong energy grid is a GREAT AMERCIA.


  1. To advocate for, and work with, a diverse set of stakeholders including labor organizations, the Center for Energy Workforce Development, the oil and natural gas industry, and the renewable energy sector to promote meaningful skills development, technical training, internships and job placement opportunities for African Americans and urban community members.
  2. To develop written, community-based diversity plans that clearly define measures for success, advancing diverse employment across all levels and sectors of the energy industry including in its C-Suites, Boards and outside consultants.
  3. Ownership: To promote entrepreneurial activities, not just in the traditional fields of construction and procurement, but also in other areas by expanding utility MOU programs and developing financing mechanisms.
  4. STEM: To develop and promote programs that lead to jobs and ownership through partnerships among utilities, energy companies, HBCUs, National Urban League affiliates and others. To lend our advocacy for a broader definition of STEM that works to educate and engage diverse communities about the critical importance of STEM.
  5. Ubiquitous Service: To work to ensure that electric rates are fair and affordable for all customers and that all neighborhoods and customers receive the benefits and share the costs of the energy transformation regardless of the technology used.
  6. Housing:  To work in conjunction with National Urban League affiliates, utilities and energy companies to protect the funding for LIHEAP, the broader utilization of energy efficiency programs, and the development of projects, such as solar gardens, microgrids and EVs, in all communities.
  7. Environmental Justice: To promote energy policies that fairly and meaningfully involve all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies ensuring African Americans have access to clean and healthy environments.
  8. Renewable Energy:  To recognize renewable energy as a vital part of an overall energy strategy. To promote the expanded utilization of renewable energy in a manner which ensures shared benefits, promotes jobs, builds local economies, addresses environmental concerns and reduces overall energy costs.
  9. Protection:  To educate consumers on energy issues and advocate for increased consumer protections.
  10. Supplier Diversity: To proactively promote business programs that encourage the use of African-American owned businesses as suppliers of goods and services. These programs and policies should emphasize the creation of a diverse supply chain that ensures the inclusion of diverse groups in the procurement plans for the entire energy industry.

SOBA Edition: