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Overview

The energy industry comprises the companies and people who locate fuel resources, harness them or remove them from the earth, and then process and distribute them for use. It is one of the largest, most dynamic, and often most controversial industries in the world.

The demand for energy first began when our ancient ancestors discovered they could keep themselves warm and cook food with fire. Since that time, our sources of energy have evolved, and the technologies we use to generate, distribute, and deliver energy have changed dramatically. Today energy is almost as essential to life as the air we breathe and the food we eat. We use energy every day, all day, when we work, play, drive, and eat. Even when we sleep, we need energy to heat or cool our homes and power our alarm clocks to wake us up in the morning.

Virtually no industry in the world today could function without some form of energy. Restaurants need it to power their cooking and refrigeration equipment. Manufacturers rely on it to operate their production lines. Even farmers need power to operate their vehicles. Energy is needed anywhere humans live or work.

For the past 200 years, humans have depended on two primary sources of energy: fossil fuels and hydropower (water), but these traditional sources of energy are finite. Beginning in the last few decades of the 20th century, other sources of energy have gained in popularity and usage. As a result, the energy industry is and will continue to be in a constant state of change as scientists and engineers work to develop energy sources and generation methods that are eco-friendly and sustainable. People want energy sources that have fewer negative impacts on our environment, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and are easily renewable, with no more fears of future shortages. It’s a tall order, but one that has led to many exciting opportunities and innovations.

The energy industry is very broad, but it can be divided into three primary categories:

  1. Energy sources: fuels that are used to generate energy or power. These include fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), water, wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear sources.
  2. Forms of energy: how the energy is transmitted and distributed to customers. The two primary forms of energy are electricity and heat.
  3. End uses of energy: once the energy is generated or created it is primarily used for transportation purposes, lighting, space conditioning (heating and cooling), and for industrial processes.

The Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) report International Energy Outlook 2019 predicts that world energy consumption will grow by nearly 50 percent between 2018 and 2050. Although the renewable energy industry continues to develop alternative fuel sources, petroleum and natural gas companies continue to search for new sources of these products and new ways for extracting them from previously difficult-to-access locations. As a result, the EIA predicts that for the next two decades, the United States will reduce its dependency on foreign oil and natural gas and be able to generate a considerable amount of the oil and gas the country needs. “In September 2019, the United States became a net petroleum exporter for the first time since monthly records began in 1973,” according to EIA. “Although the United States is a net petroleum exporter as a whole, most regions other than the U.S. Gulf Coast region remain net petroleum importers.”

However, the desire to develop renewable, clean energy sources will continue to play a major role in the energy industry. The efforts of the petroleum and gas industries to prolong fossil fuel resources may buy more time for the development of alternative sources, such as solar, wind, and biofuels. Thanks to interest in alternative energy sources, there are more sectors than ever before in the industry today. People who want to launch or further a career in the energy industry have some tough choices ahead of them. They can choose to work in any of these sectors (and this is not an exhaustive list; it includes segments of all three divisions of the industry): petroleum and oil, natural gas, electric generation, electric distribution and delivery, solar energy, wind energy, nuclear energy, geothermal energy, biofuels, and energy services and consultation.

Each of these sectors offers many opportunities. People who enjoy technical work can pursue careers as engineers, scientists, technicians, or operators. People who enjoy business management can become supervisors, managers, executives, sales reps, or brokers. Other professionals are needed to market the industry, hire workers, maintain accounting and reporting, and undertake all the administrative tasks associated with operating a business. A new sector of the industry, energy consulting, is gaining in popularity, both in the industry and with employees. Large companies are marketing energy-saving programs and devices, and consultants and scientists developing and selling them are attracted to these companies by the lucrative salaries that they offer. As the industry becomes more complex and energy more expensive, it is highly likely that these companies and these careers will continue to grow. For example, smart grid or smart meter technologies, those that offer two-way communication and allow utility companies to gather data and adjust generating capacities, require highly trained and skilled technicians and IT personnel. Companies such as IBM, General Electric, Itron, and Cisco develop these technologies and as their market increases, so does the need for employees. Another growing career field is energy efficiency because individuals and organizations are increasingly focused on reducing rising energy costs. Efficiency consultants analyze existing energy output and suggest ways to lower utility bills. Technicians help consumers and businesses save energy by adding insulation, installing climate control systems, sealing duct leaks in heating and cooling systems, installing smart lighting, and performing many other tasks. There are more than 2.3 million energy efficiency workers in the United States, according to Energy Efficiency Jobs in America.

The COVID-19 pandemic—which began in China in late 2019 and quickly spread to more than 180 countries—caused hundreds of thousands of energy workers in the United States to lose their jobs, while others were forced to take pay cuts and work part-time schedules. Many energy companies cut costs and cancelled or delayed new projects. The short-term damage to the energy industry was severe.

Despite the recent downturn, there will continue to be strong demand for energy—especially after the world fully rebounds from the economic challenges created by the pandemic. The world population is expected to reach more than 10 billion people before the end of the 21st century, according to United Nations projections. With the current world population around 7.6 billion, this is significant growth that will create huge demand for resources, including energy. Our current and anticipated future energy needs are driving growth in the number of jobs in the industry. Opportunities in alternative energy sectors are especially likely to grow because of declining construction and production costs and rising capacity in the wind and solar sectors and because the demand among an expanding population and rising number of developing nations exceeds the supply of traditional energy resources.

Uppers

Uppers

  • Good opportunities to get started. Unlike some other industries, such as law or medicine, workers can get a job in the energy industry without needing years of additional education or specialized training. It can be easier to launch a career in the energy industry with a college education than in some other fields.
  • Higher than average salaries. The pay range can vary from job to job and sector to sector, but many energy workers earn higher salaries than they could with similar jobs in other fields. Compensation packages typically include excellent benefits such as health insurance, dental insurance, paid college education assistance, and retirement plans.
  • Job stability and security. Although energy generation sources and delivery methods most likely will change in the future, most workers recognize that there are long-term opportunities in the field.
  • Working with exciting new technologies. Decreasing dependence on fossil fuels and developing environmentally friendly alternative fuel and energy sources are major trends in the industry. Energy companies are designing and developing many new technologies, and one of them may someday become the world’s leading source of energy.
Downers

Downers

  • Establishing a career can take longer. It may be easier to get a foot in the door, but it may take you longer to establish a successful career than in other industries. You may need to work for several years as an intern, apprentice, or in training before being considered a practicing operator or technician. Engineers whose work may affect the life, health, or safety of the public must work several years and pass two exams to be licensed as practicing engineers. Promotions and advancements in nontechnical positions may take longer to earn because most workers in the industry stay for many years, leaving less room for advancement.
  • Working conditions are not always ideal. Even people who love to work outside find it challenging to work in extreme heat, extreme cold, sleet, rain, or snow. Many energy workers, such as electric distribution line workers, surveyors, or engineers, spend a great deal of their time outside.
  • Health and safety concerns. In many sectors of the industry, mistakes can result in severe injury or even death. In 2015–16 (the most recent time span for which data is available), workers in support activities for oil and gas operations had the highest severe injury rates of all workers, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Other energy-related fields that ranked in the seven most dangerous sectors included power and communication line and related structures construction and oil and gas pipeline and related structures construction. Some workers at electric power plants, or those working on distribution lines or transformer vaults, have been severely injured or even killed while on the job. Heavy equipment accidents can cause injuries, and workers in mines, oil wells, and drilling rigs, also can be seriously injured in accidents or killed.
  • An uncertain future. The energy industry is changing quickly. Workers may find themselves in a booming sector one day and a dying one the next. Wind energy, solar energy, nuclear energy, biofuels, and other new sectors are all competing to become the next major source of power. However, market conditions, politics, trade policies, international relations, and regulatory environments can change the future of an industry almost overnight. For example, many fears about nuclear energy had been alleviated by 2010, and plans to build new nuclear power plants were increasing throughout the United States and the rest of the world. After the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that damaged the Fukushima power plant and spread radiation in the area, most of these plans were postponed or tabled.