Is Our Workforce Ready for a Successful Green Energy Transition?

Progressive Policy Institute
4 min readFeb 5, 2024

By Taylor Maag and Elan Sykes

Over the past two years, the Biden administration has made large national investments aimed at putting America ahead in the global race to develop clean energy industries and jobs. Investment is flowing all across the country, for projects like solar panel factories in Louisiana, energy-efficient apartment buildings in New York and electric vehicle battery factories sprouting everywhere from Georgia to Michigan.

This emphasis on a green transition comes at an important time. Just last week, our nation’s deadliest wildfire killed at least 111 people and destroyed Maui’s historic town of Lahaina. While detailed studies have not yet determined exactly how climate change influenced Maui’s fire, climate scientists have pointed to specific climate-driven factors, and existing attribution science suggests that climate change fuels warmer temperatures, less rainfall, stronger storms and powerful winds — increasing the likelihood of devastating events like this. It’s clear there is no time like the present to create a lower-emissions economy, mitigate climate impacts and protect public safety.

Yet, even with increased federal attention, implementing investments and new solutions has become difficult. One reason is our workforce. The rapidly growing clean energy sector is bumping up against serious labor constraints — facing challenges filling jobs and ensuring workers have the right skills for these positions. In the next seven years, there are expected to be over 550,000 new energy-transition jobs in the U.S. Just in 2022, U.S. green job postings on LinkedIn jumped 20% — yet, the pool of workers with the skills required to fill these jobs only grew by 8.4%.

What’s more is that our nation’s green energy transition requires not just workers with undergraduate and advanced degrees, like engineers and scientists, but also non-degree workers, including electricians, plumbers and those in the construction and manufacturing industries, among others. But these sectors are struggling, too.

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data from July shows that the construction industry has 366,000 job openings and manufacturing is short 604,000 workers. Electricians are projected to see on average 79,900 openings each year for the next decade, partially because electricians are being affected by the “silver tsunami,” where there are more workers retiring than entering the workforce. Many other jobs in the energy economy are changing substantially — requiring new skills and certifications. For example, HVAC workers will see new technologies emerge and require continued upskilling to keep pace with these changes. And this is not unique to HVAC technicians; if workers across energy sectors fail to keep up with new skills, a deepening skills gap will emerge in our economy.

Luckily there have been significant efforts to ensure we have the workforce our nation needs. At the federal level, the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) both include major workforce components. On top of the overall $1.2 trillion in infrastructure spending — much of it crucial for climate progress — the IIJA includes specific funding for state workforce development, allowing states to expend transportation funds on key workforce activities and encouraging long-term workforce planning. The IRA, which marks one year this past week, is our country’s most ambitious investment in the energy transition to date. The law encourages high-paying jobs by full tax credits available only to facilities that meet prevailing wage provisions and apprenticeship requirements.

States, too, are championing workforce efforts. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) signed an executive order to create the Commonwealth Workforce Transformation Program to invest up to $400 million of federal funding in on-the-job workforce training over the next five years. The program will support companies, contractors and unions working on projects funded by IIJA or the IRA to reimburse costs related to on-the-job training for new workers, including pre-apprenticeship, apprenticeships, and other types of models.

These examples across levels of government show progress. However, it’s clear more must be done to prepare our workforce for the energy-related jobs of today and tomorrow. To ensure policy is implemented effectively, industry has the talent they need to meet demand and workers are brought along as our economy transitions, federal and state policymakers must take further action.

This includes increasing opportunities for rapid reskilling. While apprenticeships like those funded and incentivized by the IIJA and IRA are the gold standard of workforce programs, these programs take time, often lasting one to two years before the newly skilled worker enters the workforce. To meet the full range of workforce needs, skill development opportunities that operate on even shorter timescales like technical education certificate programs must be expanded to avoid letting the skills gap grow even wider.

Policymakers must also commit to reinventing high school to support youth career development. This includes career and technical education, youth apprenticeships, STEM programs and other pathway initiatives so young people are prepared for careers across the energy sector. And lastly, they can’t let regulation get in the way of project flow and steady work. Slow permitting and byzantine regulatory requirements act together to limit the number of projects built. For workers contemplating jobs in these fields, steady flow of future work is important and provides assurance for workers and confidence in the growing sector.

While federal and state-level action offer promise, the success of these efforts hinges on a ready workforce that can drive the U.S. toward a more sustainable future. It’s clear more must be done to build a robust energy workforce and ensure all workers, regardless of their educational attainment benefit from our changing economy. Only with this can the U.S. remain competitive in the global race for a greener economy.

Taylor Maag is the director of workforce development policy at the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Elan Sykes is an energy policy analyst at PPI.

This story originally ran in The Messenger on August 20, 2023.



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