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How to Build the Workforce We Need

Building and maintaining a well-trained and diverse workforce will be necessary to the progress of clean energy in America. I recently joined an international discussion hosted by the World Bank, Connecting Sustainable Energy Businesses with Education: Getting the Workforce You Need, that looked at workforce development issues with a global perspective and included speakers from Australia, France, India, Japan, Morocco, Nigeria and Zambia.

My remarks were based on survey and research work we did with our members in the summer of 2020 led by Camille Moore, BCSE’s 2020 Jan Schori Fellow, industry outreach and advocacy conducted during the pandemic (see Powering Forward Episode 4), 2020 U.S. Energy & Employment Report and monthly Clean Energy Employment Impact analyses by BW Research, ACORE, E2 and E4theFuture.

While our coalition’s work to understand how our sectors can expand and diversify pathways towards a career in clean energy is ongoing, I want to highlight three observations to add to the broader discussion.

1. U.S. clean energy sectors were hit hard by COVID-19 pandemic but offer great growth potential as we make investments in economic recovery and the creation of a low-carbon, climate-resilient future.

Public policy aimed at economic recovery and climate change must center the health and economic well-being of the workforce. Partnering with the private sector to shape and implement these policies will ensure their effectiveness.

Prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the U.S. clean energy sectors employed well over 3 million Americans, and by the year’s end, more than 400,000 jobs were lost or furloughed.  Many of these jobs, the majority in energy efficiency sectors, have not yet been restored.

We are also seeing an increase in the number of states and corporations that are adopting ambitious climate change targets for mid-century. We will need an expanded and well-trained workforce to get there.

To meet the objectives of the restoration of jobs lost last year and the training of tomorrow’s workforce, both short-term and longer-term policies are needed.  An example of the former is the continuation of the paycheck protection program (PPP) so as to enable small- and medium-sized clean energy businesses to retain its workforce and recruit new workers. A longer-term investment is expansion of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) opportunities for grades K-12.

2. Clean energy can offer good careers, which should be made accessible to broader segments of the workforce with dedicated attention to outreach, education and training.

Clean energy careers are more than technical and engineering positions. To build a sustainable energy future, America needs skilled construction, installation, finance and professional services professionals.

Outreach and consistent engagement with currently under-represented communities will help build a workforce that is more reflective of the diversity of U.S. society. This is a role that the federal government can help with, through apprenticeship programs, partnerships with minority-serving institutions and historically Black colleges and universities and creation of senior-level workforce-development focused positions, such as one such position recently created at the office of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.

3. Workforce development and diversity and inclusion policies are distinct issues, with distinct objectives. Both are required to get the workforce we need.

In our survey of our members – we learned that 53% of respondents have a workforce development policy in place and 71% of respondents have a diversity and inclusion policy in place.  We also learned about some of the barriers facing companies as they try to address one or both issues – including limited staff and financial resources, lack of qualified and diverse labor pools due to geographic limitations and other factors, and the challenge of staff performing day-to-day job responsibilities and also training for a future position.

There is clearly more work that needs to be done, especially as the federal government and Congress move towards programs and legislation that tackle economic recovery, infrastructure and climate change.

About the Author: Lisa Jacobson is the President of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy

ICYMI: Watch the recording of the February 25 World Bank webinar.