North Carolina’s Cleantech Industry is Growing Fast

Clean technology companies (also known as “cleantech”) have become such significant economic drivers in North Carolina that the industry added 8,000 full-time jobs across the state last year. In fact, the rate of hiring for cleantech, which includes everything from renewables such as solar to efficient energy-grid upgrades, grew 31 percent between 2015 and 2016.

And that growth shows no signs of slowing, which means skilled technologists should take note. A recent industry study found that mid-level software engineers, developers and data analysts are positions in demand when it comes to creating the hardware and software infrastructure undergirding the clean-energy revolution.

Most of the cleantech hiring in North Carolina is centered in the state’s “Research Triangle.” It’s an area that includes Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, and encompasses academic centers at the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and Duke University.

Suzan Noser, a human resources partner at Schneider Electric, a global specialist in energy management and automation, stresses that her team is going to hire the best possible fit for a position, no matter where they’re from. “We’ll make it work if they’re not from the area, but we do start locally,” she said. “We focus on creating relationships at the universities, as well as professional associations to source qualified candidates.”

In 2007, the state’s legislature ordered electric utilities to begin including renewable energy and energy-efficient components in their grids. State and federal tax incentives helped drive the policy’s adoption.

Less than two years after the order took effect, North Carolina had the second-highest concentration of smart grid jobs in the country. The sector grew throughout the recession, and despite recent political pivots on energy policy, continues to do so. According to Noser, there are a number of factors contributing to the steady pace of the growth.

“Part of the attraction for companies is the talent that’s present in the area,” she said. “The influence of universities that are focused on technical fields can’t be underestimated, and the talent here is actually sustainable. There’s the affordability piece too, particularly for a global firm: if you were to compare costs to being based in Chicago or San Francisco, North Carolina is going to be significantly less expensive. The presence of other companies has impact, as well.”

“The numbers were a real eye opener,” said Susan Sanford, the executive director of the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster (RTCC), an industry-funded non-profit focused on accelerating the growth of cleantech. “Our cluster was launched to bring industry together, clarify business opportunities and attract talent to the region. As the industry has become increasingly robust, it continues to attract larger companies, and they became the draw for even more growth.”

The state’s reputation as a haven for cleantech research and development is supported by some of its newest corporate residents. In just the past few years, energy companies such as ABB, SAS, Duke Energy, and Trilliant have become a substantial presence.

As Sanford also notes, these companies’ global focus makes them less vulnerable to shifts in state and federal energy policy: “I’ve often been told that as long as there’s an established framework in place and they know its parameters, they’ll be able to do business.”

Noser advises technologists considering a job in cleantech to take a long view. “People’s understanding of cleantech is changing a lot, and I think there’s just a huge shift in culture here,” she said. “The state itself is growing. A lot of residents are moving here from different parts of the country and world and it’s creating change.”

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