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US green skills in short supply

10/8/2022

6 min read

Engineer wearing hard hat, standing by solar panels in solar farm, set against orange sunrise sky Photo: Ken Oltmann/CoServ, US DoE
Hopefully, a new dawn will rise for renewable energy jobs in the US, with successful passage of the Inflation Reduction Act

Photo: Ken Oltmann/CoServ, US DoE

The US is struggling to keep up with demand for green jobs, despite the growing opportunities for transfer from the oil and gas industry and other sectors. There is also an issue around maintaining skills diversity, reports Stephenie Overman in Washington DC.

The shortage of skilled workers in the US renewable energy industry is a straightforward economics issue, according to green power industry consultant Bob Parkins. ‘Too much demand and too little supply,’ he says.

 

Indeed, the Inflation Reduction Act, the scaled down version of the Build Back Better Act, looks set to boost renewable energy in the US. The new bill’s projected spending of $370bn over 10 years will see at least $50bn in tax incentives to boost domestic clean energy manufacturing of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and critical mineral processing. If passed (which seems to be imminent this week), the bill should result in domestic energy production and manufacturing investment that could reduce carbon emissions about 40% by 2030.

 

However, California-based Parkins warns that finance is only part of the equation. The act’s ‘ideals are a little out of touch with reality’, he says, because the US lacks a key economic ingredient needed to rehaul its infrastructure.


‘Labour is part of the [US renewable energy] supply chain… and that link is weak.’ – Bob Parkins, Consultant

 

A US Department of Energy (DoE) report released in July 2022 revealed that more than 3mn of the 7.8mn jobs in the US energy sector don’t contribute to reducing emissions. While renewable energy jobs in 2021 accounted for around 40% of total energy jobs.

 

With US unemployment in June 2022 running at 3.6%, renewable energy companies are struggling to hire labour, even without the Inflation Reduction Act’s assistance.

 

An American Clean Power Association report on Clean Energy Labor Supply warned of labour ‘constraints that would inhibit decarbonisation efforts and the build-out of renewable and storage technologies’. Its proposed solution is an ‘all hands-on-deck approach’, and recommends public-private partnerships, training programmes, community college and vocational programmes, and partnership with labour unions and non-profit organisations, to train workers and persuade them to join green energy companies.

 

Reskilling workers 
Experts agree that a good place to start looking for skilled workers to join the renewable energy sector is in the traditional fossil fuel energy industry, which is rapidly shedding jobs. About 90,000 jobs out of the 640,000 jobs in the mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction sector were lost during 2020, according to US Bureau of Labor statistics.

 

Furthermore, LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Green Skills Report found that in the past five years, the number of renewables and environment-focused jobs in the US increased by 237%. This was in stark contrast to a 19% increase for oil and gas jobs, which are now declining in number. At this rate, renewables and environment sector jobs could outnumber the oil and gas sector in terms of the total jobs likely to be declared on the LinkedIn platform by next year.

 

LinkedIn, which has nearly 800mn people with accounts on its platform, reports that the fastest-growing green skills jobs in the US are ecosystem management, environmental policy and pollution prevention.

 

Current recruiting patterns 
William Liuzza, Chief Executive Officer of New Jersey-based EnergeiaWorks, specialises in recruiting certain types of renewal energy candidates, ie engineers, project developers and asset management experts, through to installers and technicians. He claims that renewable energy companies are having trouble finding good candidates. According to Liuzza, recruitment channels are not working. ‘There are no [formerly] unemployed people working in renewable energy. We have to find people who are frustrated by the travel, the commute, the compensation, or because they are bumping heads with their supervisor in their current jobs,’ he says.

 

To find these people ‘we go to every conference and trade show and network with people with the right skill sets’, he explains.

 

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, green energy companies tightened their belts, but soon hiring increased and ‘we couldn’t keep up,’ remarks Liuzza. ‘It’s been a record year – but it has been more work [mining for quality candidates].’ Some jobs require unique qualifications. But often workers in the power and transmission sector find their skills transferable to solar and onshore wind jobs.

 

two men in a manufacturing hall, working on a wind turbine blade

Wind turbine workers at LM Windpower factory in Grand Forks, North Dakota 

Photo: Tuey

 

Ready skills translation in some areas 
Fortunately, Parkins, who consults on solar energy issues for both public and private clients, says some construction and electrical expertise translates readily into the renewable energy market. But there can be key gaps.

 

‘Electricians know safety is very important. They know how to do it safely,’ he says. However, sometimes that’s not enough. ‘Someone might be a commercial electrician. Now we put them out doing solar projects on large-scale solar farms, that may be as big as one square mile. The nature of the electrical work is different… and they don’t have the specific experience,’ he reflects.

 

Parkins, an engineer by trade, says he has worked on many construction projects where ‘I have been having difficulty getting qualified workers who can come out in the field with me. I try to educate them enough to get the job done.’

 

A matter of diversity 
US companies looking for workers to handle renewable energy jobs are overlooking pools of potential talent, according to a report called Help Wanted: Diversity in Clean Energy, jointly commissioned by E2, the Alliance to Save Energy, the American Association of Blacks in Energy, Energy Efficiency for All, Black Owners of Solar Services and the BW Research Partnership.

 

The report claimed: ‘Clean energy has a diversity problem.’ It also maintained that despite ‘the incredible job growth of the energy sector over the past decade, this lack of diversity threatens to cause women, Hispanic and Latino workers, and Black workers in particular, to miss out on one of America’s great economic expansions’.

 

About 61% of clean energy workers across the US are white non-Hispanics, which roughly reflects the proportion of the population according to the 2020 census. Black and Hispanic/Latino workers are more poorly represented in clean energy than they are across the rest of the economy, with Black Americans comprising 8% of the clean energy workforce (compared with 13% economy-wide) and Hispanic/Latinos making up 16.5% (versus 18% economy-wide), according to the report.

 

Women represent less than 30% of all workers in the sector despite accounting for 48% of the entire US labour force, the report added.

 

The Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE), formerly called Women of Wind Energy (WoWE), is one organisation trying to deal with this problem by bringing more women into the industry. The organisation maintains a job board and offers informational interviews, year-long partnerships and goal-oriented mentoring programmes. WRISE has local chapters across the US and Canada.

 

The report emphasised that: ‘Policies that support the energy sector and its low carbon transition should focus on the inclusion of women and underrepresented ethnic and racial groups, particularly Black workers (who are often the most poorly represented in the sector), so that economic benefits are more equitably shared.’

 

To help improve the situation, the US DoE programme for minority university research associates, ‘Equity in Energy’, encourages minority students to pursue careers in science and technology and supports research faculty from selected institutions in their research projects. The programme includes minorities, women, veterans and formerly incarcerated persons.

 

solar wind farm with a wind turbine in foreground and mountains on horizon

New projects, such as this major solar farm at Stirling, Utah, could serve increasing labour demands across the US

Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers

 

One way in which green energy recruitment success has been secured is through targeting of military veterans for jobs.

 

The 2020 National Solar Jobs Census found the solar industry employs more than 20,000 veterans throughout the US. Many of these jobs are in areas of installation, production, manufacturing, sales or management in the solar industry. Veterans account for 9% of all solar workers in the US, more than the 6.6% veteran employment of all workers in the US economy.

 

But that leaves plenty of room for growth. And solar training programmes are being developed to give veterans the necessary practical skills. These include:

  • Solar Ready Vets: A six-week DoE training programme for service members on military bases. 
  • Solar Opportunities and Readiness: A DoE-funded programme that introduces solar-trained, transitioning veterans to available career opportunities directly with the solar industry at job fair events.
  • Troops to Solar: A private GRID Alternatives programme training veterans and active-duty service members in hands-on solar installation experience, using GRID Alternatives’ connections to advance in their careers. 
     

Further training initiatives 
Liuzza recalls that a dozen years ago ‘there were no graduate schools in renewable energy’.

 

‘Now there are dozens of MBA and graduate programmes… and the number is growing,’ he says.

 

For example, in EnergeiaWorks’ home state of New Jersey, a Clean Energy and Sustainability Analytics Center at Montclair State University has launched a pilot NJ Wind Institution Fellowship programme in collaboration with the New Jersey Economic Development Agency (NJEDA). The programme is designed to support student research that furthers the development of offshore wind expertise. The NJEDA plans to provide more than $1mn in financial support to Montclair State, as well as New Jersey’s Rutgers University, Rowan University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).

 

‘Community colleges are also a good place to look for motivated people who are working to retool their skills,’ says Liuzza. He believes the US needs to work much harder to attract workers into the renewable energy sector. He recommends ‘trying to emulate what is going on in Europe’ as government support for the industry appears to be more comprehensive there.

 

There are positive signs of progress. Liuzza notes that the US’ Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is working to attract future potential employees by introducing solar concepts, hands-on construction experiences and career pathway opportunities at the high school level. SEIA also has programmes that introduce solar as an attractive industry for career consideration to elementary and middle school students.

 

Generally speaking, ‘we have to create a supply chain from the ground up’, concludes Luizza.