Did you know that there are currently 26 operational wind farms in Washington State and another five in development? Did you also know that Amazon is now the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy as the company seeks to decrease the environmental footprint of its data centers? Dramatic consequences of climate change instilled a sense of urgency and accountability in policymakers and industry stakeholders. The race to carbon neutrality and zero carbon emissions in many economic sectors is transforming construction, building operations, and electricity production and distribution with important ripples workforce.
SJI’s Research & Policy team has recently completed two workforce development research projects about workforce efforts needed to support clean energy initiatives. First, the SJI team completed a report describing the occupations in green construction and energy efficient buildings operations and their employment outlook.
In the second, our researchers explored how ramping up clean energy production in the state will impact regional utilities’ future workforce needs. Many utility companies in the Pacific Northwest are already engaged in emission reduction, but recent legislation introduced by the new federal administration and Governor Inslee is pushing for quicker rollouts and greater impacts, increasing the demand for clean energy workers who are prepared for a quickly evolving field, ready to implement new and innovating solutions.
Energy Efficient Construction and Building Operations
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, there was a great deal of hope that “green jobs” would emerge to simultaneously solve the employment crisis and the environmental crisis. Many policymakers understood green jobs would be newly emerging occupations. While some new occupations did develop, they have not transformed the labor market. They are not typically unionized and, consequently, have comparatively low wages with limited advancement opportunities. As such, many policymakers were disappointed with “green jobs” as a workforce development opportunity.
There has been a renewed emphasis on green and sustainable Construction and Building Operations activities at the state and local levels. With the new federal administration, there is also the prospect for significant investment in clean energy and related infrastructure. Strengthened regulations, investments in infrastructure, and more robust consumer demand for more sustainable buildings will continue to drive the demand for a well-trained Construction and Building Operations workforce. The COVID-19 recession has highlighted the need for educational pipelines that prepare an increasingly diverse population to meet the latest industry standards to reach state and municipal sustainability goals.
The key findings from SJI’s research are:
- The sectors continue to be overwhelmingly white and male. While there have been some gains in diversity in specific occupations, overall, the industry is not diversifying as fast as the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Metropolitan Statistical Area (Seattle MSA) population is.
- The COVID-19 recession has impacted Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) working in the sectors more than white workers, reversing earlier gains in diversity in the industry.
- While the age of Construction and Trades workers has been a concern in years past, current data shows that a significant portion of students and current workers are well below retirement age. Those requiring more experience (such as Construction and Building Inspectors) skew slightly older. Those requiring a relatively new type of skills (such as Solar Photovoltaic Installers) skew younger.
- Energy-Related Construction trades have the highest baseline projected of the four sectors considered between now and 2024. Additional investment in clean energy and infrastructure adds between 0.3% and 0.7% to growth in that sector.
- There are multiple pathways for many of the occupations, including shorter-term training. These shorter-term training programs can be supported with on-ramp programs and wrap-around services for individuals who have been unemployed for six months or longer or face other barriers.
- Apprenticeship programs need to be expanded. Apprenticed occupations have a consistent undersupply, with strong projected growth, while programs have long waitlists.
- It is critical that apprenticeship programs rapidly diversify their recruitment and registration. Despite current efforts, registration of BIPOC apprentices remains well below the share of BIPOC in the Seattle MSA working-age population.
- Increasing women’s participation in Construction and the Trades has been notoriously difficult. Both training programs and employers have a role to play. Training program coordinators have reported efforts to attract more students from target populations. However, they have long waitlists, which is a higher barrier to those same target populations. At the same time, employers must prioritize racial equity and inclusion and accommodate cultural differences and caretaking responsibilities.
Clean Energy Industry Workforce
The devastating consequences of climate change demand urgent actions from policymakers, polluting industries, and society in general. Electricity production and distribution have a significant environmental footprint. Utilities in Washington State rely on hydroelectric power for the majority of the sector’s power generation, and hydropower has no greenhouse gas emissions. However, utilities now must replace the quarter of the state’s power that comes from coal-fired (2025) and natural gas-fired power plants (2045). SJI’s report is a scan of the landscape of the current and future workforce needed by utilities to achieve Washington State’s clean energy goals.
Current Workforce and Clean Energy Efforts
- Most utilities rely on a core set of occupations: electricians, engineers, hydro-operators, linemen, power plant operators, and mechanics.
- The most common clean energy efforts initiated in the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in the last three years are utility- and community-scale solar installations, wind farms, building out electric vehicle (E.V.) charging infrastructure and pilot power storage capacity projects, and smart grid projects to improve grid resiliency.
- Utilities face ongoing workforce challenges, particularly related to a chronic skilled labor shortage in some occupations (e.g., hydro-operators), competing with large technology companies for highly qualified candidates, and recruiting and developing a diverse workforce.
- The COVID-19 pandemic did not significantly impact clean energy efforts though it caused a short-lived pause in utilities’ recruitment and hiring. Managerial and hiring tasks were moved online, requiring stringent security protocols but allowing organizations to resume activities as usual.
Future Workforce and Clean Energy Efforts
- Utilities are generally confident in their ability to meet early Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) benchmarks and anticipate federal funds to stimulate investment in their shovel-ready clean energy projects, particularly transportation electrification and energy storage capacity. Still, some utility representatives expressed uncertainty regarding technical feasibility, particularly for later CETA benchmarks.
- The occupation mix needed to support these future efforts will remain the same as the current workforce. However, many, if not all, roles will evolve and incorporate the new technical skills required to operate increasingly electrical and integrated systems. Training programs should adapt their curricula to integrate more technology skills, various communication protocols among multiple systems, cybersecurity awareness, and electrical safety.
- The evolution of legacy occupations (i.e., skilled trades) to meet the demands of the clean energy utility industry is a core strategy for maintaining strong labor standards in the utility sector and ensuring that clean energy jobs are good jobs. New job titles are emerging related to clean energy and race and equity, but only at the director and program manager level. They are not new occupations.
Impact of Public Policy
- Recent state-level legislation and proposed federal legislation aim to curb greenhouse gas emissions and quickly transition to carbon-free electricity production.
- Examples include the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA), the American Jobs Plan, and Governor Inslee’s Climate Commitment. Specifically, CETA mandates that utilities eliminate coal power by 2025, be carbon-neutral by 2030, and carbon-free by 2045.
- Even though hydroelectric power is already the primary power source of many utilities in Washington State, organizations are investing in renewable energy sources (e.g., solar, wind) and storage solutions. However, some expressed concern over whether there was adequate labor supply to implement these plans (e.g., electrician apprenticeship programs’ capacity is traditionally limited). The financial burden to utilities, consumers, and communities is another concern.