Jun 15, 2021 - Energy & Environment

3 dirty jobs that will build the future

Illustration of a warning sign with hammer instead of an exclamation point

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The clean, green, connected world that's right around the corner will require dirty, dangerous work to build.

Think: Hauling solar panels up to high roofs. Digging trenches for fiber-optic cables along busy highways. Climbing towering masts to rig cellular antennas.

  • There's high demand for these jobs, but it's harder than you might think to find people who want to do them.

The big picture: The Biden administration is pushing big infrastructure investments that, if Congress approves, will allow localities to invest in green and high-tech infrastructure, and in the process, create much-needed new jobs.

Between the lines: The necessary work is almost always labor intensive, sometimes dangerous, and often requires migrating to different parts of the country at different times of the year to follow the jobs.

Tower climbers

The installers of wireless antennas for cellphone networks and broadcast TV transmitters often clamber up to 200 feet above the ground while navigating electrical hazards.

  • They face a risk of fatal injury while on the job that is 30 times higher than the average American worker's, David Michaels, now a George Washington University professor of environmental and occupational health, said in 2018.
  • Last year, the FCC estimated that the coming U.S. 5G build-out will require 20,000 additional tower climbers.
  • While the job can be unforgiving, workers can earn more than $70,000 a year without a four-year degree — nearly twice the average salary of workers with only a high-school degree.

Solar equipment installers

The solar industry will need to quadruple its workforce — to a total of 900,000 workers — to meet President Biden's 2035 clean energy target, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

  • Solar panels are heavy, weighing 40-50 lbs. Lugging them up ladders to install on second- or third-story residential roofs takes physical strength, skill and will power.
  • As with agricultural labor, solar workers usually must travel to where the jobs are. Cities and states with clean-energy focused agendas and tax credits typically have stronger pipelines of residential and commercial installations, but winter months can be slower due to weather constraints.

Fiber-optic cable layers

Biden's plan to get broadband to every U.S. home depends on quickly laying fiber-optic cables in unserved areas.

  • That means thousands and thousands of miles of trenches will need to be dug in rugged terrain, remote areas and along local right-of-ways near busy roads.
  • These projects are time consuming and, as with solar installations, the work is subject to seasonal demand and heavy travel.
  • They can also be dangerous. Last year, two workers were killed in an explosion when their jackhammer struck an underground electrical line while installing a fiber-optic cable under an intersection, according to OSHA records.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show that installers for wireless antennas often climb up to 200 feet, not 2,000.

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