Prior to the pandemic, the energy sector had been one of the fastest-growing sectors in the United States. However, the energy sector was not immune from the pandemic-induced economic recession, and job losses were steep. According to the US Energy Employment Report (USEER), employment in the energy efficiency segment experienced the most significant job losses, declining 272,000 workers, an 11.4 percent drop. Nevertheless, 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.  Effective workforce education and training can play a pivotal role in achieving those goals and driving COVID-19 economic recovery while ensuring a diverse workforce with the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities to transition to a clean energy economy.

Availability of skilled labor is currently a limiting factor in deploying many cost-effective measures to decarbonize the nation’s economy. Before the pandemic, retirees in the skilled trades were outpacing new employees by a rate of 5 to 1, leaving more open positions than workers to fill them. Fast forward to 2020 and 2021, and despite the economic challenges of the pandemic, people’s interest in home improvement projects soared, along with the demand for skilled contractors. With people spending more time in their homes, homeowners realized the need to update or reconfigure indoor and outdoor spaces for work, school, play, and more. While states, utilities, and other environmental organizations have developed workforce health and safety protocols that enable workers to return to job sites, these workers are in such demand that finding workers to address the backlog of efficiency improvements is challenging at best.

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 this 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.

While most utilities across the country are adept at providing education and training programs for incumbent workers and those entering the workforce, utilities are increasingly focused on designing and implementing workforce and job placement programs as well. As a result, energy efficiency program staff are grasping the opportunity to bring individuals from underrepresented groups into the workforce, looking beyond entry-level jobs and identifying long-term career growth opportunities. For example, the investor-owned utilities in California and the program administrators in Massachusetts are now piloting programs designed to recruit, support, train, and place disadvantaged workers. Through these program interventions, utilities are recognizing the opportunity to address the skilled worker shortage impacting their programs, drive deeper partnerships with community-based organizations, and provide more opportunities for underrepresented workers to play a pivotal role in the transition to a clean energy economy.

The point of replacement is always the most cost-effective opportunity to switch from one type of technology to another—such as moving from a natural gas tanked water heater to a heat pump water heater. The workforce must be prepared to communicate the value propositions of decarbonization technologies at these pivotal replacement points and install the technologies in a way that maximizes both greenhouse gas reductions and energy savings over the long term. These new and evolving workforce development and job placement programs are a great opportunity to arm entering workers with the skills and abilities to understand the benefits of decarbonization technologies and communicate them effectively to decision makers. In my experience, I have encountered a deeply entrenched belief system within the HVAC community that there is currently no technology that can be more efficient than a tankless water heater. To have an entering workforce with current technology knowledge at the ready to share among co-workers will accelerate advocacy and remedy outdated misconceptions around efficiency and environmental value propositions.

As workforce development and job placement programs are just launching, now is a crucial time to set them up for future success and ensure the evaluability of these programs for years to come by understanding how they fit into the larger energy training landscape. These emerging programs are perfect opportunities to capture key lessons learned and best practices for designing workforce development and job placement programs. Many of these programs seek to build partnerships with community-based organizations, training organizations, apprenticeship programs, community colleges, and other stakeholders that are vital to the economic empowerment of many who experience systemic barriers to employment. By working through these existing pathways, program administrators can more effectively deliver the benefits of their workforce training and recruitment programs to those traditionally underserved by such efforts. Another key strategy for many of these programs is providing a holistic approach by offering training on interview skills, resume writing, and addressing barriers such as transportation and childcare. Identifying the most impactful wraparound services, the optimum deployment strategies, and the resources needed to address barriers evaluation will help streamline these program designs in the years to come.

It is crucial to establish appropriate theories of change for these program/design frameworks for engagement and measurement, and they tend to lend themselves particularly well to embedded evaluation models. While the level of effort in researching and evaluating outcomes from training programs historically has been mixed across the country, we can’t afford not to allocate resources to evaluating workforce development and job placement programs. Different types of research will be needed to ensure the success of these pilots. 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 will be 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 and assess opportunities for partnerships and collaborations to expand reach, co-develop curriculum products and resources, establish internships, develop mentorship programs, and promote career awareness and readiness.

In my experience, research investments now will drive rigorous, cost-effective, and defendable evaluations moving forward by limiting challenges with developing retrospective baselines and identifying best practices through lessons learned to help all program administrators deploy highly effective workforce development and job placement programs.  We are excited to share the results of the work we are doing in California and Massachusetts in this important area in the coming months. So stay tuned!  

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