Many current jobs are in research and development. But as start-ups mature and commercialize their technologies, the industry will bring on workers for a full range of production needs.That diverse workforce will range from farmers to molecular and cell biologists, and chemists to mechanical engineers. Refinery operators, construction workers, logistics specialists, and marketing personnel will all be needed in the new field, according to U.S. Department of Labor projections.
“What we’re working on here is truly world-changing stuff and that’s inspiring to people,” says Harrison Dillon, president, co-founder, and chief technology officer of Solazyme. “You have no idea how many emails we get with resumes attached.”
Launched in 2003 in Dillon’s garage, his company now has more than 100 employees deploying algae to make a variety of clean fuels and bioproducts.
Like Solazyme, the advanced biofuels industry is young. Many current jobs are in research and development. But as start-ups mature and commercialize their technologies, the industry will bring on workers for a full range of production needs. That diverse workforce will range from farmers to molecular and cell biologists, and chemists to mechanical engineers. Refinery operators, construction workers, logistics specialists, and marketing personnel will all be needed.
in the new field, according to U.S. Department of Labor projections. The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Washington, D.C., has tallied some 70 biorefinery projects that are either operating or planned in 30 states. To scale up, “We have to build hundreds of these plants across the country,” says Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s Industrial and Environmental Section.
For now, the career path is lined with both opportunity and risk; some start-ups will succeed and others won’t. But with industry executives and advocates believing that it’s a matter of when—not if—advanced biofuels become a mainstream source of transportation energy, job growth in the field is seemingly a sure bet.
“We’re looking at an industry in its infancy that has a potential to be paradigm shifting in the transportation market in the next 20 years,” says Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group representing 33 bioenergy companies.
President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address underscored his administration’s commitment to advanced biofuels to create both renewable energy and new jobs on the domestic front.
What jobs will be created and where will they be? High-value jobs in science and engineering are vital on the research and development front. But on the day of the speech, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also made it clear on his own blog posting that rural America will play a key role in renewable energy’s job growth.
“Over the past two years, the Obama administration and USDA have worked to build a foundation for sustainable economic growth in rural America. At the center of our vision is an effort to increase domestic production and use of renewable energy.
"Someone has to build these plants. Someone has to produce the parts for these plants. Someone has to maintain these plants. Someone has to run these plants. Someone has to transport the fuel. That can all happen in rural communities,” he wrote.
The President Backs Biofuels Job Creation
Someone also has to grow the plants that will produce the feed stock to make the energy. In its study of the economic impact of advanced biofuels production in the U.S., Bio Economic Research Associates estimated that of the 190,000 direct jobs created by 2022, “46 percent are in the feedstock production (primarily agriculture) and 35 percent are in construction, engineering, and procurement.” Further, as it projected growth in advanced biofuels production to 45 billion gallons by 2030, it estimated nearly 70 percent of new, permanent jobs would be in feedstock supply:
In the U.S., a prime driver of job growth, say those closely watching, will be the ability of the industry to meet the nation’s goals for advanced biofuels set forth by the Renewable Fuel Standard.
The national mandate calls for production of 21 billion gallons of advanced, cellulosic, and biomass-based diesel fuel by 2022. Based on that goal, a 2009 report by Bio Economic Research Associates estimated those standards could generate 29,000 direct jobs by 2012 and 807,000 jobs overall by 2022. Industry officials say the biggest hurdle facing growth in the field is private investment and the federal loan guarantees and tax policies to ignite it.
“Private sector investment has dried up in the last year and a half,” says Erickson, who, along with other advocates, has lobbied the Obama administration for increased government backing.
The growing pains don’t appear to be discouraging young people. In December 2010, the first handful of students graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a newly created master’s degree in bioenergy. For Derek Latil, a 24-year-old master’s student from Spain, the gamble of pursuing a new venture makes it all the more enticing. “I’m still young,” he says. “I’d like to be developing something that is new and starting from the beginning.”
At Amyris, Inc., a leader in the use of synthetic biology to replace petroleum-based chemicals and transportation fuels with renewable fuels, staffing director Salvador Rivera offers this advice to job seekers: “In a startup environment, being a Swiss Army knife is a strong asset. We look for people who have tremendous amounts of flexibility and versatility.”
Amyris recently went public and hopes to commercialize soon. Now employing 220 people in its Emeryville, CA, headquarters and 80 at a sugarcane plant in Brazil, the company expects to nearly double those numbers by the end of 2011.
Not surprisingly, Rivera foresees plenty of interest for those spots. “I think everyone is clearly aware of the damage we’ve done to the globe,” he says. “There’s a lot of purpose in what we’re doing.”
That sense of purpose is what brought Harvinder Chagger to Solazyme. Eager to heal an ailing planet and lured by the thrill of scientific discovery, she tested the waters as a bioengineering student intern and then, in 2007, became one of its early employees. Says Chagger: “I wanted to do something that would make a difference.”