The United States is at a critical juncture for workforce, education, and training to play a pivotal role in decarbonizing the energy sector while simultaneously driving COVID-19 economic recovery and ensuring a diverse workforce. Building decarbonization and transportation electrification require that the incumbent workforce learns new technologies and continues to advance their knowledge, skills, and abilities to keep pace with technological innovation. The entering workforce must also be trained to take on the complex new jobs associated with the new clean energy economy. This necessitates the retraining of existing educators and a retooling of existing curriculum. Without critical, effective, and innovate workforce education and training programs and the appropriate policy supports, our ability to quickly meet climate goals will be thwarted.

Prior to the pandemic, the energy sector was one of the fastest-growing sectors in the United States, although a lack of gender and racial diversity remained a key challenge.  The energy sector was not immune from the pandemic-induced economic recession; however, and job losses were steep. According to the US Energy Employment Report (USEER), employment in the energy efficiency segment in 2021 experienced the most significant job losses, declining 272,000 workers, an 11.4 percent drop. Traditional HVAC firms shed the highest number of jobs in the energy efficiency segment, losing 66,700 workers and the ENERGY STAR® HVAC segment lost 34,300 jobs. While employment in the motor vehicles segment overall declined by 231,000 jobs in 2021; however, there were job increases in both electric vehicles (+6100 jobs) and hybrid electric vehicles (+6,300 jobs). Not all workers have experienced the impacts of the pandemic in the same way. Black, Hispanic, and female workers, who were already underrepresented in energy sector jobs, have disproportionately been impacted by higher levels of unemployment due to COVID-19.

Job losses during the pandemic exacerbated an already shrinking workforce. Before the pandemic, retirees in the skilled trades were outpacing new employees by a rate of five to one, leaving more open positions than workers to fill them. The current economic downturn has not erased the need to mitigate climate change, and proactive interventions are vital to supporting current and future energy, climate, and equity goals. New technologies such as electric vehicles and heat pumps struggle to become mainstream without a larger ecosystem of trained professionals who can sell, install, and maintain these increasingly complex technologies. Utilities, state agencies, program administrators, and training entities are rapidly developing training and curriculum to support both the existing and entering workforce on decarbonization technologies, including essential training on heat pump technologies to support building decarbonization and education on the maintenance of electric vehicles to support transportation electrification. In parallel, these entities are also increasing their focus on designing and implementing workforce and job placement programs. Energy efficiency staff are grasping the opportunity to bring individuals from underrepresented groups into the energy efficiency workforce—looking beyond entry-level jobs and identifying long-term career growth opportunities. Entities, such as the investor-owned utilities in California, the California Public Utilities Commission, Ameren Illinois, NYSERDA, and the program administrators in Massachusetts, are piloting programs designed to recruit, support, train, and place disadvantaged workers in clean energy career paths.

Through our evaluations of numerous workforce, education, and training (WE&T) programs throughout the country, Opinion Dynamics has identified four key best practices to designing, deploying, and evaluating these essential programs.

1. Develop partnerships with Community Based Organizations (CBOs). Developing effective partnerships is a key strategy to empowering people who experience systemic barriers to employment. Including diverse voices in WE&T needs assessments and program design activities ensures the implementation team understands community needs, employer needs, and employee needs. CBOs are typically nonprofit groups such as local and regional trade organizations, community-based training organizations, cultural centers, faith-based organizations, and employment organizations who are working at the local and regional levels. In our research work across the country, we are seeing a rise in the use of partnerships as a key crosscutting strategy to address issues of equity and inclusion, especially in the WE&T space. Many WE&T programs are partnering with CBOs to develop programming that empowers people who experience systematic barriers to access family-sustaining energy career opportunities. These programs typically provide holistic services including career awareness, technical training, employment support, and job placement. CBOs are being asked to partner on WE&T programming by conducting marketing and outreach to underrepresented individuals, identifying potential participants in WE&T programs, and providing wrap-around support services such as transportation subsidies, resume writing training, and childcare services.

While there is no doubt that partnerships drive outcomes greater than the sum of what individual entities can achieve alone, we have observed too much focus on intended outcomes of these partnerships. Little attention has been given to the attributes of what makes these partnerships successful. This is a missed opportunity to build capacity across all stakeholders and to truly understand what makes a partnership effective and nimble in our ever-changing world. Effective partnerships require intentionality. Through our work in this area, we have identified five fundamental attributes of successful partnerships. We believe that these attributes should guide the development, execution, and evaluation of this key strategy.

2. Assess local and regional needs. Successful workforce development programs are tailored to the local needs of the area and address market needs for the local region. To learn what the region needs, working with CBOs is one great strategy. Another important strategy is the systemic review of economic, demographic, employer, and labor data. Studies that disaggregate energy-related labor market information, recognizing the drastically different economic conditions due to COVID-19; and assessing patterns of various demographics with an equity lens are needed to capture a more nuanced picture of where the energy workforce is and where they need to move to support climate and equity goals. Profiling the current workforce to understand the types of energy jobs lost from COVID-19, the regions most impacted by job losses, and the skills and credentials required for existing and newly minted jobs resulting from the transition to a clean energy economy will also be key. Developing an inventory of energy training programs from universities, community colleges, vocational/technical high schools, manufacturers, labor unions, job training organizations, trade associations, government offices, cities, employers, training providers, and community-based organizations to identify gaps in the training network can help program staff identify opportunities to expand reach, co-develop curriculum products and resources, establish internships, develop mentorship programs, and promote career awareness and readiness.

3. Identify the program theory and align measurement plans to assess outcomes and not just outputs. It is crucial to establish appropriate theories of change for workforce, education, and training programs and how they link to overall energy and workforce goals. Unfortunately, many energy training programs have fallen into what is often referred to in the talent development industry as the butts in seats While Woody Allen said, “80% of life is just showing up,” sitting in a classroom does not mean learning has occurred. Although it is easy to track program outputs, such as the number of people who attend a training or the number of trainings offered, these metrics are woefully inadequate in measuring key training outcomes such as if knowledge was gained, if skills are applied on the job, if training programs are reaching underrepresented populations, and if training programs are preparing the workforce for transitioning to the clean energy economy.

4. Defining the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities needed for successful energy program implementation. Reviewing program theory and logic models (PTLMs) across energy programs of all types finds that an implicit assumption of most programs is that contractors and technicians—with experience—have the right knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) to install measures in a way that will realize and ideally maximize energy savings, greenhouse gas reductions, and non-energy benefits. Energy programs and WE&T efforts utilize training to support this assumption; however, the key challenge is defining the right KSAs to achieve these programmatic goals. In programs where these training needs are incorporated into the PTLM, program staff often consult relevant industries for guidance. For example, many HVAC/heat pump programs across the country rely on industry standards to define quality installation and quality maintenance, often using ANSI/ASHRAE/ACCA Standard 180, ACCA Standard 5 and ACCA Standard 9. While these standards, and others like them, provide an important framework for program design and implementation, these types of standards traditionally define what tasks to perform and sometimes what order to perform these tasks in, but they do not typically define how to perform the tasks nor what tools to use to perform the task. This lack of clarity of what knowledge, skills, and abilities are needed to perform standards-based work has led to challenges determining the effectiveness of investments in training and education.

Since jobs are best understood as a series of tasks and responsibilities that an employee conducts, it is essential for utilities, program administrators, and implementers to work with industry representatives to conduct job task analyses. This is especially important as America’s decarbonization efforts will create many new jobs across heat pumps, electric vehicles, solar, wind and battery storage technologies.  While there has been significant research on job task analysis methods over the past 75 years, Opinion Dynamics has found that the DACUM (Developing a Curriculum) Job Tasks Analysis method is an effective, comparatively inexpensive, relatively fast, and time-tested approach. These analyses create a foundation for developing WE&T interventions, facilitating credentialing and certification, and developing workforce standards.

As we recover from the economic downturn and move towards a zero-carbon future, the energy sector is positioned to accelerate the movement towards a green economy, ensuring that communities disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change are not left behind. We can address climate change, position disadvantaged workers in green careers, and provide a sustainable recovery from the economic impacts of COVID-19. This is an exciting opportunity, but we must ensure we develop high-quality careers and not just jobs. The transition to a zero-carbon society will see some jobs disappear and new jobs created. Workers in high carbon industries will become more at risk of underemployment, unemployment, and redundancy. We must support the transition of workers in these sectors and prepare them for these new opportunities. At the same time, we have a fantastic opportunity to foster equitable access to economic opportunities and create pathways for greater inclusion of underrepresented workers in the energy sector, helping address the critical skilled labor shortage. Considering these four best practices when developing, implementing, and evaluating WE&T programs will help ensure a fair, just, and impactful transition to the clean energy economy.

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